It is a room full of miniatures: tiny kitchen stoves, little cash registers, midget chairs and tables. Is it a coincidence that this Lilliputian setting’s guest of honor has until recently been the ambassador to Micronesia? Diane Edith Watson is herself rather tall, however, and her 20 years in the state Senate have cast a very long shadow over L.A.‘s 32nd Congressional District, making her the front-runner in an improbably large field of 18 candidates seeking to replace Julian Dixon, the 12-term Democrat who died last December.
Watson’s visit to the Sixth Avenue Children‘s Center by Jefferson Boulevard was no coincidence, given her early background as an educator and L.A. school-board member. Most of Watson’s assembled supporters were African-American women of a certain age, and it was they who settled into the children‘s furniture to hear Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez endorse their woman. Half a dozen or so men stood in the back, whispering about news that Congresswoman Maxine Waters had just announced her support of Watson’s main rival, state Senator Kevin Murray. It was late March, and now every endorsement was opening wounds that might never heal.
The crowded race for the 32nd has unofficially become the second L.A. Marathon, with the eventual winner almost certain to be decided April 10, in the person of the top finisher in the Democratic primary. You‘d have to turn to Chicago’s 1st Ward or Manhattan‘s 15th Congressional District to find a more reliably Democratic electorate. (The district includes Mar Vista, Culver City, Koreatown, Exposition Park and the Crenshaw District, and is roughly 40 percent African-American and 30 percent Latino, with whites and Asians making up the rest.)
The field runs a broad and occasionally comic gamut of contenders, ranging from Green Party longshot Donna J. Warren to the irrepressible Ezola Foster, the retired John Bircher and Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party running mate last year. There‘s also GOP candidate Mike Schaefer, a Las Vegas resident and congressional hearse chaser who attempted to run in the 1998 special election for the late Sonny Bono’s Riverside County House seat, then made the ballot for district attorney . . . of San Francisco. Other Democratic hopefuls include nuclear-disarmament activist Tad Daley, businessman Philip A. Lowe, civil rights attorney Leo James Terrell and entertainment lawyer Kirsten Wonder Albrecht.
Local congressional elections receive about as much television coverage as the opera season. And because the contest won‘t affect the House’s balance of power, L.A.‘s media have paid even less mind to this overlooked district. Still, as political scientist and Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein says, ”This is a great prize — a safe seat like this, with no term limits, doesn’t open up a lot.“
Whether Democrat, Republican, Reform or Green, most of the candidates ultimately fall under the more telling ”other“ category, and it is state Senator Kevin Murray and L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden whom Watson is battling in the autumn of her public-service career. Her biggest assets are her name-recognition, tenaciousness and local visibility. ”I live and work in my district, I shop at Crenshaw Plaza,“ she says in the dining room of her home, located on a tidy street not far from Leimert Park. ”I was born here and went to Dorsey High School with Julian Dixon. I have an open-door policy, and my number is in the phone book. People call at 2 o‘clock in the morning, and I answer.“
A February poll commissioned by Watson’s campaign showed her getting a 34 percent share of a hypothetical four-way vote over Holden (14 percent) and Murray (13 percent), with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who ended up not entering the race, a distant fourth. The survey also showed that a three-way race would favor Watson with a 44-16-16 percentage-point edge over Holden and Murray, and a 55 percent to 19 percent lead when matched only against Murray. What‘s important to remember, though, is that the substantial remaining percentages in these polling breakdowns were classified as ”undecided“ — and were counted before Murray’s campaign muscle began pulling in big endorsements.
Veteran political operative Parke Skelton, who is currently a consultant to mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa and who advised Adam Schiff in his successful bid to unseat Congressman James Rogan, believes this is ultimately Watson‘s race to lose. ”I’ve felt all along,“ Skelton says, ”that someone would have to go head-to-head with her to win, and that has not happened.“ And while Skelton thinks Watson is conducting a weak campaign, it is stronger than her losing battle against Yvonne Brathwaite Burke for a Board of Supervisors seat in 1992. Watson enjoys the highest profile in a race in which there have been no one-on-one debates with her main opponent, Kevin Murray.
Murray was an assemblyman when he was elected in 1998 to fill the termed-out Watson‘s District 26 Senate seat. (A former talent agent and entertainment lawyer, he could become the first congressman to evolve politically from William Morris to Capitol Hill.) He exudes an impatient energy and appears busy even while sitting still — his hands fidgeting with a pen or plastic knife — during interviews. The senator’s interests roam over a wide range of local subjects (like many Angelenos, Murray expresses fascination with professional publicity seekers Angelyne and Dennis Woodruff) and isn‘t shy about voicing his opinions. ”I never understood why everyone was crazy over Frank Sinatra,“ he said one afternoon over a tuna-fish sandwich and chips. ”They always talk about his ’phrasing,‘ but to me he was just a white guy trying to sing jazz. It was his arrangers who were great.“
Murray’s own phrasings have a blunt but engaging self-confidence, a take-me-or-leave-me finality as he rattles off statistics, names and places, whether discussing his urban-parks program (he helped create the 1,100-acre Baldwin Hills Conservancy) or defending the compromises that gutted his racial-profiling bill. You get the feeling he knows only one direction, and it isn‘t sideways.
Then there is Nate Holden, who first ran for the 32nd seat in 1978, losing to Dixon. Although he is a front-runner in the sense that he isn’t an Ezola Foster, few outside his organization give him a chance of winning. His importance has instead become that of a spoiler. But for whom? Murray says that because of overlapping constituencies, he and Watson will pretty much split the difference over the votes lost to Holden. Watson, though, believes Holden will subtract from Murray‘s male following.
There was a time when Holden cut an impressive, almost dashing political figure, especially during the 1989 mayoral race, when, after Zev Yaroslavsky lost his nerve to run, Holden alone rose to challenge the scandal-enfeebled Bradley machine. (The Far East National Bank fiasco had just erupted, exposing the mayor’s receipt of consultant‘s fees from a bank that was benefiting from city patronage.) Holden came close to forcing Bradley into a humiliating runoff, but this would be the pinnacle of his career. Before long there were the sexual-harassment charges (which he beat), allegations of improper campaign contributions, and shenanigans with South Korean strippers during a business visit to that country.
The line between the sublime and the ridiculous in Los Angeles politics may at best be a theoretical one, but Holden definitely crossed it long ago, by (among other things) defending the indefensible Daryl Gates and calling liberal — and Jewish — City Councilman Mike Feuer a ”Klansman.“ Today, he has become the clownish ”Nate O’Holden“ who leads the council‘s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations — a colorful, self-made legend whose political achievements are far behind him.
Still, Holden‘s endorsers include Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, along with several city councilmen, past and present, and a smattering of Sacramento pols, local clergymen and Koreatown businessmen. No wonder that, when asked to make a prediction about April 10, Sonenshein demurred. ”I’m not crazy,“ he said. ”What‘s the point of being a pundit when you can’t even figure out who‘s going to endorse who?“
Watson has racked up some impressive symbolic endorsements from civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height, as well as from county Supervisor Gloria Molina and members of Congress, including Sanchez, L.A.’s Juanita Millender-McDonald and New York‘s Charles Rangel. From a practical standpoint, though, Watson’s most important supporter has been EMILY‘s List, the liberal-feminist PAC that promotes woman candidates across the country.
Her chief opponent, however, has put together what might be called Murray’s List — an awesome facsimile, at least, of the classic Democratic coalition comprising labor, ethnic activists and the official party apparat, personified locally by a host of clergymen and community organizers, by the County Federation of Labor, and by congressional leaders Howard Berman, Henry Waxman and Maxine Waters. (Murray is the son of former Assemblyman Willard Murray, a longtime ally of the fabled Waxman-Berman machine.) As if these weren‘t enough, he also has the support of Julian Dixon’s widow, Bettye. Watson is clearly irritated when she claims that these last four people never returned her phone calls when she first sounded them out about the election.
Watson dismisses Murray‘s blue-chip sponsors as the inevitable political markers collected by a seated senator for his quid pro quo support of special-interests groups, including labor. (Murray pushed through a bill ensuring the viability of MTA contracts in the case of Valley secession.) When asked why the state party organization has officially endorsed Murray, Watson claims her opponent paid for the memberships of his followers in the local Democratic Party clubs that made their recommendations to the state organization. ”He used rather strong-armed ways that caught the attention of those groups,“ she says. (Murray’s campaign office declined comment on Watson‘s charges.) In fact, Watson claims that, should she lose, it will be because of vote manipulation. ”You saw what happened November 7,“ she says, referring to G.W. Bush’s questionable victory in Florida. ”I suspect some of that will happen here. I‘ve been the victim of that before, and these people who are running the campaigns are not [above using] dirty tricks.“
In a campaign with little media coverage and no substantial differences of ideology, endorsements become the tea leaves one studies for fund-raising prowess — Murray claims to lead the pack by having raised nearly $400,000, although both he and Watson now say they have about $170,000 in cash reserves — and signs of issues. And it is in some of his supporters’ more explicit references to Murray‘s youth that one finds the race’s single obvious issue: Watson‘s and Holden’s ages. At 41, his supporters say, Murray would be in an ideal position to rack up seniority in the safely Democratic 32nd, a prerequisite for the survival of black political clout in L.A. Watson is 67, Holden 71.
On the other hand, black women and voters over the age of 55 constitute the largest share of the 32nd‘s electorate, and Watson says Murray cannot openly play the age card here because it would backfire against him. Besides, Watson comes across less as a senior citizen, and more as a driven campaigner powered by a quiet vitality that allows her to begin her workday with a staff meeting at 6:30 or 7 a.m., and to stay up until after midnight.
”I am the recipient of faith and trust,“ Watson says. ”The difference between me and these two gentlemen is that I don’t have the baggage they carry. I haven‘t made the kind of shady personal choices they have.“
The baggage, in Murray’s case, includes past questions about whether or not he resided in his district while in the Assembly, about an idyll with a prostitute that came a cropper with the untimely arrival of a police officer and about the candidate‘s impatience to file papers for Dixon’s seat before the late congressman had actually been buried. Such charges have fired up Watson‘s backers. As one such partisan, Najee Ali, executive director of the Project Islamic Hope, told the Weekly, ”I would rather vote for an older person with integrity than a young one with no ethics.“
One can see posters for the 32nd’s candidates, even for the irascible carpetbagger Mike Schaefer (”Your Champion in Congress“), up and down La Cienega and Crenshaw boulevards. The propaganda war intensifies at vacant lots near freeway onramps and fenced-off gas stations along north-south thoroughfares. Yet there are great stretches along east-west corridors like Jefferson Boulevard that are completely devoid of political messages, where only billboards for Judge Hatchett or Seagrams gin loom over the landscape.
Even among such commercial imagery, however, there are signs of social flux, for a growing number of these billboards are in Spanish. For now, Latinos do not make up much of the district‘s active electorate, and even after the pending redistricting of the state’s congressional boundaries, the 32nd will remain a largely African-American voting preserve. (The 2011 reapportionment will be another story, however, one that will probably spell a reduction of black political dominance here.) Still, whoever wins on April 10 will not preside over the same safe district of manageable interests that has existed since the 1970s, but one that has suddenly become complex and conflicted. This makes the race to replace Julian Dixon not a comic vaudeville of intraparty rivalries, but a turning point for a district in transition.