Voter turnout, which all day Tuesday looked more like a convention of ghosts than an election, produced several surprises, including a big loss for longtime black leader Mervyn Dymally; a big victory for one of California’s most polite politicians, Fran Pavley; a tight battle between Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas for county supervisor that will stretch to November, and a wan victory, despite massive efforts, for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s first cousin John Perez.
According to the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters, only 16.5 percent of the county’s 4,027,819 voters showed up.
Such a tiny and self-selected population, political analysts say, is generally made up of factions who don’t give much indication where the bulk of voters really stand. And that fact will play a major role in the Parks vs. Ridley-Thomas struggle. On Tuesday, Parks lagged behind Ridley-Thomas by about 5 percentage points in a crowded field of lesser candidates. Experts strongly disagree on what it all means come November.
“The candidate who leads in a multiperson primary like yesterday’s, but doesn’t reach the 50 percent victory threshold, is often in big trouble,” says Jonathan Wilcox, a Republican consultant and communications professor at USC. “[Ridley-Thomas] has maxed out with voters and it can be hard to do better. [He] and backers spent $4 million on get-out-the-vote and could not pull it off.”
Dick Rosengarten, editor of the political insider’s newsletter Calpeek, says the opposite: “Come November, I think Parks will have a tough time — unless he can find something on Ridley-Thomas.”
But at least for now, the juicier postelection talk was over the almost embarrassing victory by Villaraigosa’s first cousin John Perez, who spent a small fortune — and benefited from a huge independent campaign by big labor groups, yet only modestly beat the total votes won by three unfunded rivals who had no chance of winning.
The 46th Assembly District has an unusually high population of illegal immigrants and a very low number of registered voters; for that reason, it is known as a place where the winner needs only a small cadre of registered voters in order to win — as Fabian Núñez did six years ago.
Still, Tuesday’s outcome was a shocker, because only 698 more voters preferred Perez over the three other candidates taken together — and two of those had formally dropped out. “Perez’s weak victory,” Wilcox says, “is an awesome repudiation of the Fabian Machine” — a reference to the back-room king making, believed to have been led by Núñez and Villaraigosa, to pressure Perez’s top two rivals out of the race.
Rosengarten again disagrees: “It’s because Perez is gay” and running in a Latino area. But Rosengarten agrees with Wilcox that the Perez race illustrated the minor impact that union backing — millions of dollars spent leading up to Tuesday — had on the June 3 races. Rumors had swirled for weeks that massive spending on Perez by labor unions would excite voters. Yet in the end, Perez got just 4,299 total votes — believed to be one of the lowest victories ever for a state Assembly seat.
“That is unbelievably low!” exclaimed Rosengarten. “For an assembly seat!” He said he was sorry to see labor unions do so poorly, but noted, “Labor turned out to be paper tigers. Labor talks a big game, but then can’t deliver anything except the ‘next day.’”
On this count, Wilcox agrees: “I’ve heard of microtrends, but that vote is ridiculous. One dirty little secret in politics is that significant spending and political maneuvering like you saw on Perez is often done to purposely reduce turnout, to control the ‘voter universe.’”
Races closely watched in the black community were also full of surprises — and losses for the labor unions. Mervyn Dymally failed in his bid to represent state Senate District 25; he was beaten by a rare, pro-gun black Democrat, former Assemblyman Rod Wright — an outcome Rosengarten calls “the biggest upset. Labor was not a big factor. And voters were tired of Dymally.”
Democratic voters in depressed areas — the 25th Senate District covers many struggling, southern suburbs of L.A. — aren’t avidly pro-gun-control like Westside Democrats because, Rosengarten says, “You can see being pro-gun as a pro-business stance toward those who run shops in the area.”
A similar message emerged in the 52nd Assembly District, covering Compton, Paramount, Watts and other areas, where business groups sought a fresh face after the antibusiness Dymally got termed out. They poured $400,000 into the campaign of a 36-year-old who won on Tuesday, Isadore Hall, a black real estate executive and Compton city councilman who beat the more traditional Democratic candidates.