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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON LOCAL POLITICS

Exaggerating an 'Ethnic' Rift

In the Alarcon-Katz state Senate race, one candidate did a better job raising cash and getting out the vote.

July 05, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Much is being made of the ethnic difference that may have played a part in a recent hard-fought election in the San Fernando Valley. Too much, in fact.

So much that an otherwise routine rivalry between ambitious politicians--one of whom happens to be Latino and one of whom happens to be Jewish--is being blown out of proportion. The two pols, of course, are former state Assemblyman Richard Katz and City Councilman Richard Alarcon.

Both badly wanted the Democratic Party's nomination for the 20th state Senate District seat, representing the eastern end of the Valley. They spent roughly $750,000 apiece trying to win it in last month's primary election. Alarcon came out ahead by a mere 29 votes out of 77,127 cast.

In any election, such a narrow margin brings the news media arunning to remind an increasingly apathetic electorate how important even one vote can be. But another more volatile element has been injected into post-mortems on the Katz-Alarcon contest: ethnic politics.

Katz is Jewish. Alarcon is Mexican American. Large numbers of both groups live in the 20th District. Both candidates sought votes all over the district, but obviously looked to their own communities for a foundation of support to build a winning campaign. It is the tactics Katz and Alarcon used to solidify their respective foundations that have stirred controversy.

Katz sent out campaign literature that questioned Alarcon's financial dealings as a councilman, suggesting he had "dirty hands." Alarcon claims this was an effort to link him with a controversial Latino council member with whom non-Latinos often confuse him--Richard Alatorre, whose finances are currently under investigation by the FBI.

For his part, Alarcon's campaign sent out a last-minute mailer that linked Katz with past Republican Party efforts to intimidate newly registered Latino voters. Because there are so many new Latino voters in the Valley, Katz claims this tactic amounted to "race baiting," and respected Jewish community organizations agreed with him.

In both instances the tactics were dishonest, if also sadly in keeping with the rough-and-tumble of modern campaigns. They have diminished the reputations of two men that I previously considered among the best and the brightest of local political representatives. That's disappointing. But if the Katz-Alarcon rivalry degenerates into a permanent political estrangement between Latinos and Jews, that would compound disappointment with tragedy.

For there are far more simple, and benign, explanations for what happened in last June's voting than a Latino-Jewish rift.

In my view, Alarcon just ran a better campaign. And I write that not just as a journalist who covered many such campaigns. I also happen to have grown up in the 20th District and still have friends and family living there, from Reseda to Sylmar, who provide as good a source of grass-roots information as any political reporter could ask for.

The assessment of neutral political activists in the 20th District, like members of local labor unions and leaders of such church-based groups as Valley Organized in Community Efforts, is that Alarcon's get-out-the-vote effort was much bigger than Katz's.

One VOICE leader told me she recruited 50 volunteers, "which is a lot for us," to telephone registered voters and remind them to go to the polls. Alarcon had almost 800 volunteers.

"Maybe Katz was complacent," the VOICE leader wondered aloud.

Speaking of complacency, I spoke with several well-to-do political activists who regularly donate to campaigns in the area, and who have given money to both Katz and Alarcon in the past. All were pestered by Alarcon this time, and some contributed. Not one heard from Katz, including two who were prepared to help him.

"Alarcon called me 12, 15 times before I spoke with him," said a top executive of a major employer in the district. "He even called my friends and asked why I wasn't returning his calls. I gave him a check just to get rid of him. But Katz never called, which is weird."

Maybe not so weird. I suspect that Katz and his campaign manager, Harvey Englander, were operating from an old paradigm that can hobble Democrats as well as Republicans, although the GOP gets bashed for it more. They assumed that Latinos don't vote in numbers equal to the size of their population.

Consider: As longtime incumbent officeholders in the Valley, both Katz and Alarcon had name identification in the district. Katz's chief advantage was $130,000 left over from his last Assembly campaign. Alarcon's advantage was harder to measure: thousands of freshly minted Latino citizens who had recently registered to vote for the first time.

Under the old paradigm, it was safe for Katz to assume those new citizens would not vote, especially in a primary election where voter turnout is traditionally low. So Katz not only underestimated the eagerness of those new Latino voters, he underestimated the hunger of his opponent, who pulled out all the stops to get as many of those Latinos to the polls as possible.

So if there is a future trend for Los Angeles elections in the 20th District, it is not a Latino-Jewish rift. It is the willingness of thousands of new Latino voters to turn out at the polls, if they are motivated. And that is no threat to any politician--Jewish, Latino or otherwise--but an opportunity.

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