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Light Voter Turnout in 1st District Race : Politics: About 20% are casting ballots to choose a supervisor. Election is likely to place first Latino this century on county board.

January 23, 1991|RICHARD SIMON and JILL STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

About 20% of the voters were expected to cast ballots in Tuesday's historic 1st District election that is likely to give Los Angeles County its first Latino supervisor and could end a decade of conservative control on the powerful county board.

Based upon a sampling of 10 precincts, county elections officials estimated that 15.8% of the voters had cast ballots three hours before polls closed at 8 p.m. Included in that figure were 19,041 absentee ballots returned by Tuesday morning.

Four prominent Latinos--Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, state Sens. Art Torres and Charles Calderon and former supervisor's aide Sarah Flores--topped the field of nine candidates in the special election that was overshadowed by the war in the Persian Gulf.

If no one receives a majority, the top two vote-getters will face a runoff Feb. 19.

Voters appeared somewhat more interested in the historic election than many campaign consultants had feared. Candidates' handlers had voiced concern that as few as 10% of the eligible voters might participate because of preoccupation with the war.

"It looks like any other special election," said County Registrar-Recorder Charles Weissburd. "People don't like to get out of their houses to vote for one issue."

Only 18 of 515 registered voters had cast ballots by noon at one Boyle Heights polling place located in a Soto Street travel agency. "This is the slowest (election) I've ever worked," said poll worker Maria Neira.

Fred Moreno, polling inspector at the Midnight Mission polling place on Skid Row, reported that 2.9% of registered voters had cast ballots by 4:30 p.m. "If we're lucky, we'll only hit 3.7%. There is just no interest--not even low interest."

At a polling place set up at a Chevrolet showroom in Industry, precinct officer Jack Phillips said that 22 out of 197 voters showed up by 4:30 p.m. "I think people are waiting for a runoff on Feb. 19," he said.

The turnout was running ahead of the record low 12.68% for a special election in February, 1989 to fill a vacancy created by the death of state Assemblyman Curtis Tucker.

Tuesday's off-season election was ordered by a federal judge who ruled that the all-white board discriminated against Latinos in drawing district boundaries. In response to a 1988 voting rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups, Judge David V. Kenyon redrew the 1st District to help a Latino succeed retiring Supervisor Pete Schabarum.

Latinos make up a third of the county's population, but no Spanish-surnamed person has been elected to the powerful board since 1875. The only woman or minority to serve in this century was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was appointed in 1979 and later defeated in an election.

Tuesday's vote could tip the balance of power on the governing board of the nation's most populous county. The board oversees a $10-billion budget and provides services to 8 1/2 million residents--a population greater than 42 states. Moreover, the winner will automatically be seen as one of the most powerful Latino politicians in the United States, with a ready platform for seeking statewide or national office.

Three of the four leading candidates are Democrats, and the district is heavily Democratic. Conservative supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana were pinning their hopes for retaining control of the five-member board on Flores, the lone Republican among the leading candidates.

Richard Fajardo, head attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the voting rights case, said the supervisors were partly to blame for the low turnout. He pointed out that the plaintiffs wanted to hold the election during last November's state election, but the conservative majority persuaded a federal appeals court to delay the 1st District election while appealing Kenyon's ruling.

Fajardo said he was not surprised by the low turnout.

"The levels of participation in the Latino community are going to grow pretty dramatically," he said. "This is one step on a long process of healing, of having the Latino community become a part of the political process in Los Angeles."

In the short, fast-paced campaign, the four prominent Latino candidates collectively spent more than $1.3 million trying to win over a tiny portion of registered voters interested enough to cast ballots.

The new 1st District is 25 miles long and runs from crowded, tiny apartments just west of downtown Los Angeles to five-bedroom homes on the affluent northern edge of unincorporated Rowland Heights.

In East Los Angeles, unincorporated territory that relies on the county for services such as fire and police protection, the new supervisor will essentially serve as the City Council and mayor.

Molina portrayed herself as a political reformer and fighter for the little guy who will shake up the huge county bureaucracy. She was heavily backed by women's groups and Reps. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).

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