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Decision '93 / A Look at the Elections in Los Angeles County : Los Angeles City Council : Two races are wide open because the incumbents have quit to run for mayor. Some members seeking reelection are in tough fights. : 7TH DISTRICT : Rainbow of Contenders Seek to Replace Bernardi

April 11, 1993|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The impending departure of City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a crusty octogenarian who has held office since 1961, opens the door to a historic possibility: the election of the San Fernando Valley's first Latino council member.

The population of Bernardi's 7th District is 70% Latino. Its boundaries were specifically redrawn by the City Council last year to create a Latino seat.

Moreover, three Latinos are among seven candidates seeking to succeed Bernardi. Two of them--Sylmar attorney Raymond Magana and Richard Alarcon, Mayor Tom Bradley's top Valley aide--are considered contenders.

But the Latino seat may not be Latino at all. Political observers note that 48% of the district's registered voters are Anglos, making them the biggest voting bloc. Only 31% are Latinos. Nineteen percent are African-Americans.

Those realities have produced a wide-open race featuring a rainbow of candidates: three Anglos, three Latinos and one African-American.

Besides Magana and Alarcon, they are LeRoy Chase Jr., who is African-American, head of the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley; Al Dib, a produce wholesaler and the lone Republican in the race; Anne V. Finn, widow of former Councilman Howard Finn, who represented much of the area until he died in 1986; city Fire Capt. Lyle E. Hall, who forced Bernardi into a 1989 runoff election, and Henry R. Villafana, a schoolteacher and the third Latino in the race.

Although Hall was widely considered the front-runner in the early going, Magana sprinted to an initial fund-raising lead. But some observers say that the presence of three Latinos in the race may fragment the Latino vote so badly that two Anglos will emerge from the election and go on to a June runoff. Some observers see Hall being pitted against Dib or Finn.

The seat is open because Bernardi, 81, pledged not to seek reelection after his 1989 campaign. He kept that promise but surprised many people by running for mayor.

The district is a largely blue-collar area including Pacoima and other poor, crime-troubled parts of the northeast Valley.

The race has included an intense but unsuccessful behind-the-scenes drive by Latino candidates to deny Hall an endorsement by organized labor.

Magana, Alarcon and a candidate who has since dropped out, Rose Castaneda, successfully lobbied members of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation's political arm to withhold an endorsement from Hall last month.

That was a setback for Hall, a former president of the city firefighters union. But then rank-and-file union members later voted to back him after all.

Dib, who is Anglo, offended many Latinos when he said that he "can tell by their faces" whether Latinos are U.S. citizens. He made the comment in explaining how he gathered voters' signatures to place his name on the ballot.

Several Latino candidates privately discussed how to respond to the remark. The possibilities included publicly criticizing Dib, who is backed by another Valley councilman, Hal Bernson.

They decided to do nothing as a group and asked a local chapter of the Mexican-American Political Assn. to hold a news conference condemning Dib. It never materialized.

The hesitancy to gang up on Dib along ethnic lines, some observers say, reflects the Latino candidates' perception that they need Anglo votes to win.

The Latino candidates also have tiptoed around another racially charged issue: the proposed breakup of the Los Angeles school system. Answering Times questionnaires, Alarcon and Villafana took no position on the issue and Magana voiced support of it after first taking no position. The three Anglo candidates support the breakup.

The Times poll shows that Anglos are more likely than others to support the breakup, which is viewed in some quarters as a reflection of Anglo hostility toward multiethnic Los Angeles.

Arturo Vargas, a vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a conversation about Latinos running in Anglo-dominated areas: "You cannot outright be a pro-Latino candidate because you don't have the base to do that."

A Latino candidate who asked not to be identified said: "You can't get suckered into a black-Latino issue or an Anglo-Latino issue."

With candidates struggling to raise campaign funds in a low-income district during a recession, the race has been a fairly low-intensity affair. Observers expect a flurry of direct mail advertisements (and perhaps some mudslinging) as the campaign enters its final days.

Ethnicity aside, the candidates agree that crime and unemployment are the chief issues in the district. They are split on a ballot proposal to raise property taxes to finance 1,000 more police officers.

Alarcon and Finn favor the idea. Dib, Hall, Magana, Villafana and Chase oppose it.

Those against the tax suggest a variety of ways to finance more police officers. Several favor hiring reserve officers and allowing civilians to replace sworn officers in desk jobs.

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