A concerted campaign effort by organized labor and others that targeted newly enfranchized Latino voters helped boost union organizer Gil Cedillo to an upset primary victory in Tuesday's 46th Assembly District special election, political observers said Wednesday.
Cedillo outpolled Los Angeles school board member and fellow Democrat Vickie Castro by a 2-1 margin to win his party's nomination for the Jan. 13 runoff election.
The effort by organized labor and immigrant rights groups focused on 8,000 new voters with the message that Cedillo was best-suited to oppose Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant policies.
"We didn't want to fight Gloria Molina [who endorsed Castro]," said Democratic Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles who supported Cedillo, a close friend since their days at Roosevelt High School. "We want to fight Pete Wilson."
With all 45 precincts reporting, Cedillo garnered 44% of the votes, registrar-recorder officials said.
Castro, considered by many to be the race's front-runner because of her six years representing the Eastside on the school board, received 22%. Los Angeles lawyer Ricardo Torres, also a Democrat, finished third with 13%.
Cedillo, former general manager of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, will be heavily favored in the runoff against Republican Andrew Kim and Libertarian Patrick Westerberg because Democrats outnumber Republican voters 4 to 1.
Kim, an attorney who lost to Democrat Louis Caldera last year, was the top Republican vote-getter with 10%. Caldera in September gave up his seat to join the Clinton administration.
Westerberg, the Libertarian candidate, will be in the runoff although he received only 1% of the votes.
Officials said 20% of the district's voters turned out Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, Cedillo and Castro met with Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante and several other lawmakers for breakfast and Castro said she has endorsed Cedillo in the runoff. "I embrace her support," Cedillo said.
Parts of the predominantly Latino Eastside make up a major portion of the 46th District. The district extends west through downtown, Little Tokyo and Chinatown to include immigrant neighborhoods in Pico-Union, the Temple-Beaudry area and Koreatown.
It was in these low-income neighborhoods that labor and immigrant rights groups worked together on Cedillo's behalf under Proposition 208, which allows independent campaign spending as long as the candidate that benefits is not directly involved.
Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said this coalition identified 8,000 new Latino voters and sent each of them five mailers that stressed the importance of voting and that Cedillo was "the Democrat that Pete Wilson feared most."
Radio ads on two Spanish-language radio stations, costing an estimated total of $10,000, reinforced that message in the campaign's final days, Contreras said.
He could not estimate the cost of the independently funded effort under Proposition 208, the state initiative passed by voters last year and touted by supporters as campaign reform. But Castro said the unions spent about $100,000 to defeat her.
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, was critical of the independent money's role because it turned what many thought would be a close victory by Castro into a landslide for Cedillo.
The example set in the 46th District will be copied in June's primary across California, Guerra said.
Cedillo defended the Proposition 208 money, saying that the "early advantage went to [Castro]" in the race.
Preliminary financial reports showed that, excluding the independent funds, Castro spent about $100,000 while Cedillo spent about $60,000.
There were other reasons for Castro's defeat. Some said her attacks against Cedillo backfired. Among other things, her mailers claimed that Cedillo did not have a degree from UCLA.
Cedillo, who said he graduated from UCLA in 1977, never responded to the attacks in stump speeches, preferring instead to talk about his qualifications and his agenda if elected.
UCLA registrar's officials have refused to confirm or deny that Cedillo has a degree, saying only that he has "outstanding obligations" to the university.
Castro said she noticed an omen of bad things to come when she telephoned prospective voters before the polls closed Tuesday. A number of voters, about 25 of the 200 to 300 she called, said she should remain on the school board, Castro said.
"I took it as a positive and a negative as the same time," she said Wednesday.
The trend of Tuesday's voting was evident when Cedillo took an early lead in the absentee-ballot results. His lead grew steadily.
Castro, mingling with her supporters Tuesday night at Casa Mexicana in Boyle Heights, was on the verge of tears. "It's not over," she reassured the crowd, "but it doesn't feel good."
Meanwhile, Cedillo's supporters at an Olvera Street restaurant joyfully chanted "U-C-L-A" throughout the evening--saying they were getting back at Castro.
Times staff writers Erika Chavez and Amy Oakes contributed to this story.
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CANDIDATE VOTE % 45 of 45 Precincts Reporting Gil Cedillo (D) 5,312 44% Victoria Castro (D) 2,624 22% Ricardo Torres (D) 1,525 13% Andrew Kim (R) 1,185 10% Manuel J. Diaz (D) 568 5% Roberto N. Galvan (R) 329 3% Marijane Jackson (D) 203 2% Patrick Westerberg (L) 159 1% Khalil Khalil (R) 92 1%
Democratic, Republican and Libertarian candidates listed in bold will meet in a runoff election Jan. 13.