It's Wednesday afternoon, eight days after election day, and City Councilman Richard Alarcon's campaign team is camped out in the gray hallways of the County Registrar-Recorder's Office in Norwalk, trying to stay loose. As election workers verify the final ballots from the 20th Senate District race, their candidate is clinging to a 27 vote lead over former Assemblyman Richard Katz – a lead that will shrink to 7 votes by Friday, only to lengthen to a final margin of 31 the following Tuesday. “As Chick Hearn would say, It's nervous time,” jokes one campaign consultant.
The race wasn't supposed to be this close. Katz, a veteran Sacramento player with sharp political skills, should have been on a victorious post-campaign vacation by now. The demographics of the district, which stretches from Reseda and Canoga Park in the west to Sun Valley and Pocoima in the northeast, were just too strong for Alarcon to overcome. Or so the conventional wisdom said.
But even as the returns were trickling in on election night, eight days ago, it was clear that the conventional wisdom had miscalculated. Returns from the heavily Latino precincts in the northeast portion of the district showed a huge turnout for Alarcon, offsetting Katz' strength in the more affluent southern and western precincts. After two rounds of ballot counting, less than one-tenth of 1 percent separated the two candidates.
As each side hovered over the returns, pols from across the state were taking notice of the historic upset in the offing that would make Alarcon – already the first Latino elected to the City Council from the San Fernando Valley – the first Latino Senator from the Valley. For two decades the voters of the 20th Senate District had been sending Jewish democrats to Sacramento, and while the face of the Valley was getting more and more Latino, Katz was considered a safe bet to continue that legacy. Now all bets were off. The long-awaited and much commented emergence of the Latino vote was arriving much sooner than anyone had expected.
But even with his candidate on the verge of an historic upset victory, Allejandro Padilla, the young, charismatic manager of the Alarcon campaign, says he is not surprised. Tired? Yes. Nervous? Yes. Surprised? No. It's been this way in each of the three campaigns he has run, Padilla says: for assemblymen Tony Cardenas and Gil Cedillo in 1996, and the current race. Each time his candidate was given odds of slim to none. His record so far: 2-0, with number three hanging in the balance.
“There's really no secret to it,” says Padilla, professing astonishment at everyone else's surprise. “We identified our supporters and made sure they got out to vote on election day. It's politics 101.”
Which is to say, it was won with people like Nury Martinez and Hilda Garcia, both young Latinas in their early 20s, who are camped out in the hallway next to Padilla.
Why did they get involved in the campaign? “Because of Allejandro,” they chime in unision; Padilla blushes sweetly and turns away. Martinez, who had previously worked on a local city council race in the City of San Fernando, went to high school with Padilla and signed on to the campaign when she heard he was running it. Despite her relative inexperience, Padilla tapped her to coordinate the campaign's massive volunteer program, which kept phone banks staffed seven days a week from the beginning of March to the beginning of June. Garcia says she went to the campaign office because she heard they were looking for a receptionist. “I had no idea it was for a campaign,” she says. “I was just looking for a job.” She wound up in charge of the yard-sign program, overseeing the manufacture and distribution of more than 10,000 signs to the district – an extraordinary number. “10,513 to be exact,” she says.
The lawn signs program was typical of the zeal Padilla and his 1,000-plus volunteers mustered. “We had up to 30 or 40 people in the office phone banking, seven days a week,” says Martinez. “High school kids, family members, friends, you name it.”
“It's really not rocket science,” says Padilla. “It still comes down to reaching out to voters and getting them out to vote on election day.”
The difference, of course, is that Padilla and his volunteers were reaching out to people who had never been reached out to before – who for years were considered either unreachable, or not worth reaching, by pols who focussed their energies on what is becoming an increasingly unreliable commodity: the “likely voter.” The methods of modern campaigning that have characterized California legislative races for the past 25 years – the targeted direct-mail appeal, mastered by Michael Berman and Carl D'Agostino in the 1970s – largely overlooked the sporadic, low propensity voter, as do many polls.
Yet from the outset, these “low propensity” votes were precisely the people the Alarcon campaign went after. They had, really, no other option. In a straight theoretical matchup of the “likely voters” coveted by campaign consultants, Alarcon would have lost handily to Katz – which is precisely what the pundits predicted. And as Padilla and his team made contact with the low-propensity voters – one by one, in person, on the phone, or likely both – they came to the conclusion that a key reason so many Latinos never bothered to vote was that no one had ever asked them to.
“There were any number of times when someone would say to us, 'I am voting for your guy because you are the only campaign that has ever called and asked me for my vote,'” says Padilla. “People like to be asked for their vote. That's a lesson I learned from Tip O'Neill.”
There is a wonderful incongruity in Padilla's comment that points to one of the keys of the campaign's success. For all the talk of the “newly emerging Latino electorate” and “changing demographics,” there is a decidedly old-school edge to the Alarcon campaign and the politics it practiced. “People who ran campaigns in the '30s, '40s and '50s in working-class districts would understand instinctively what is going on here,” says Saeed Ali, a consultant to the Latino caucus in Sacramento. “It's LBJ-style populism.”
Whatever you call it, the proof is in the numbers that pols will be poring over in the weeks ahead as they try to figure out exactly what Alarcon's victory says about the new political calculus in California.
The big number, of course, is the proportion of Latinos among the electorate as a whole. Ali says that according to one preliminary estimate, Latinos represented 33 percent of primary voters in the 20th Senate district in last month's primary, against 25 percent Latino voter registration in the district. That sort of premium on voter registration was unthinkable only two or three years ago, says Ali, and mirrors a statewide trend toward a motivated Latino electorate spurred by its opposition to initiatives like Propositions 187, 209, 226 and 227. The Katz campaign, apparently hewing to the old conventional wisdom about low Latino voter turnout, pegged the Latino proportion of “expected 1998 primary voters” at roughly 20 percent of the overall electorate, according to a fact sheet they distributed prior to the election – an apparently fatal miscalculation.
There is, to be sure, a darker side to Alarcon's “old school” campaigning, one that the Katz camp has been playing up since the day after the election. “It's spelled P-O-L-A-N-C-O,” as one political wag put it. That would be State Senator Richard Polanco, Chairman of the Latino caucus and a key Alarcon backer. In the final days of the race, Polanco poured upwards of $180,000 into Alarcon's campaign, much of it for an incendiary mail piece targeted to Latino households, associating Katz with the notorious Orange County “poll guard” incident in which Assemblyman Curt Pringle's campaign posted uniformed guards at polling stations to discourage Latinos from voting.
For the Katz campaign, Polanco represents the scepter of the bad old school: the ethnic-based, machine-style politics of yore. He is a bogeyman, a Boss Tweed en espanol. “If it weren't for Polanco's money . . . this race would not have been that close,” said Mitch Englander, a consultant to the Katz campaign, as he watched the county election workers tally ballots one day last week. “Its unfortunate that they decided to play the race card in this campaign.”
Bill Mabie, a top aide to Polanco and a key figure in the Alarcon campaign, overhears Englander from his post in the hallway outside the verification room. “Race card? Ask Katz why his campaign people have been systematically challenging ballots with Latino surnames,” he says. “Ask the election workers here which campaign is playing the race card. They'll tell you.” Mabie's charge – that the Katz campaign targeted Latino ballots for exclusion – would appear in an article in the L.A. Times the following day, accompanied by a stock denial from the Katz campaign.
And it is Polanco's success, he figures, that is behind many of the attacks. “What this is all about is Katz trying to explain why he lost a race that everyone in town figured he had won,” says Mabie.
What it is also about is that fact that, for all the candidates' protestations to the contrary, race and ethnicity played a huge, dramatic role in the vote. Indeed, when one analyzes the vote precinct by precinct one is struck by a huge disparity: despite the closeness of the overall race, precincts either went heavily for Katz or heavily for Alarcon, with very few balanced in the middle. According to a preliminary estimate by the Alarcon campaign, Latinos, concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the district, voted 80 percent for Alarcon, while Jews, heavily represented in the southern and western areas, voted 80 percent for Katz. “It is that dramatic a split,” says Mabie.