For 45 minutes recently, members of the Eastside Democratic Club quietly listened to the candidates seeking the group's endorsement for the vacant seat in the San Gabriel Valley's 49th Assembly District.
When the hopefuls finished talking, the club's members urgently sought a place to talk--in private. Everyone knew the conversation was going to get hot.
Speaking in Spanish, the members, all of them Latino, quickly narrowed the list of candidates to two: Gloria Romero, a Latina, and Judy Chu, who is Chinese American.
Then sparks began to fly: As club President Alvin Parra recalls, some members wanted to back Romero--even if a majority thought better of Chu--because "even if ours isn't qualified, at least she's Latina."
There was a time when that kind of behind-closed-doors argument might have been decisive within the Eastside club, Parra says. But at that March 15 meeting, it wasn't enough. Chu was endorsed.
Whether or not the group's decision was another baby step toward multicultural government in Los Angeles, Parra thinks a message was sent.
"Regardless of ethnicity, we are looking for the best-qualified person," he said, truncating the argument he made to his colleagues that day.
"Many years ago, Latino community representatives fought hard for Latino representation--for any Latino. Younger Latinos are really grateful for that," Parra said. "But now it's not just any representative, but what representative. We realize this is a diverse area, and we have to learn to live together."
'It's About Leadership Politics in Sacramento'
How that realization plays out is a matter of interest far beyond the boundaries of the 49th District. Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said this San Gabriel Valley contest is the race to watch this year.
"It's not only about ethnic politics," he said. "It's about leadership politics in Sacramento. Some of my research shows that this will be the first election in the '90s that some [safe] Latino seats in the Assembly won't be Latino anymore."
The 49th Assembly District, for example, encompasses one of the state's most diverse constituencies, stretching from Rosemead westward through Monterey Park and Alhambra to include unincorporated East Los Angeles. It also is a longtime stronghold of Latino Democrats.
At least 31,000 Latino households in the district are home to at least one registered Democrat. Comparatively, fewer than 9,000 households have at least one Asian voter who is a Democrat, according to Voter Contact Services.
Overall, 59% of the 49th District's voters are Democrats, compared to 23% Republican and 18% independent. Thus the June 2 primary is crucial because the winner is likely to glide to an easy victory in the general election.
Although the district's Asians, most of Chinese descent, are better off economically than most of the other residents, that has meant little politically up to now.
But for the first time, voters can cross party lines in the new blanket primary, allowing Asians, about 50% of whom are Republican, to vote for Chu. Moreover, she has a strong financial advantage, having raised $116,000, more than triple the amount of her closest challenger.
In 1994--when Chu was soundly defeated by Latina incumbent Diane Martinez, who cannot seek reelection this year because of term limits--crossover votes might have greatly changed the outcome.
Rudolfo de la Garza, vice president of the Tomas Rivera Institute and a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin, said his research suggests that Chu's prospects among Latino voters are mixed, the Eastside Democratic Club's endorsement notwithstanding.
"There are not many Latino organizations that can deliver a consensus," he said. "This view might affect the elite but cannot deliver the electorate. The linkages aren't as good as they should be."
Still, studies by the institute have shown that Latinos are more willing to cast ballots for candidates outside their ethnic group than any other part of the electorate, De la Garza said.
"They say they look for the quality candidate," he said. But for people like Chu, there's a major drawback. "Given a choice, they usually vote for Latinos."
The 49th District seat has long been one Latinos could count on, and Guerra believes that it is in the best interest of Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) to "control the safe district."
That helps to explain speculation that Villaraigosa endorsed Romero because of her ethnicity--something the speaker strongly denies.
"Gloria Romero and I are good friends," he said. "I've known Gloria a long time."
If Chu is to become the first Asian American to represent Southern California in Sacramento since state Sen. Al Song decades ago, she must reach beyond her own ethnic community--and deeply into the Latino electorate.