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Results Suggest Race Card's Power in Elections Is Fading

April 15, 1999|DARRYL FEARS and ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAF WRITERS

Barbara Boudreaux had every reason to believe she could retain the Los Angeles school board's 1st District seat Tuesday. She carried the race card, an ace that had swept the African American incumbent to victory before.

In this election, however, her race card got trumped. She finished second behind challenger Genethia Hayes, an African American woman who played down race in the district of mostly black voters and predominantly Latino residents, and who appealed for everyone to work together for better schools. Boudreaux, who does not plan to change her strategy in a runoff, said she is simply protecting her constituency.

Other results in this week's election blurred traditional notions of race and politics. In another school board race, a Latina finished second to a white incumbent in a district where half the voters are Latino. In the 10th Council District race, incumbent Nate Holden appeared headed for a runoff with an African American challenger after a Korean American collected a surprising number of votes among the mostly black electorate.

Race has long been an undercurrent in the life of Los Angeles, from the era of deed restrictions and the zoot suit riots to the 1965 Watts explosion, the Rodney G. King beating and the subsequent 1992 upheaval.

But around the city, political observers said this week's elections are a wake-up call for old guard politicians. Appealing to the racial pride of voters no longer guarantees victory, they said. As Southern California and its politicians grow increasingly diverse, some believe that the race card may be losing its potency.

"The old black/white paradigm that once existed has played out," said Franklin Gilliam, a professor of political science at UCLA. "It has been superseded by a set of overlapping and ever more complicated dimensions."

Added Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton: "There's a sense of two different styles and approaches emerging, and people are trying to decide which one is better. One is more toward coalition building with other groups, and the other is that this [particular ethnic] group needs to be represented."

Surprise Showing in Council Race

In her June runoff with Hayes, Boudreaux may have some company among the old guard.

Holden will probably have to fight off a challenge by the Rev. Madison Shockley, whose struggling campaign for the 10th Council District seat was greatly helped by Scott Suh, a Korean American who garnered an astonishing 15% of the vote in a largely black district with his talk of business development and new jobs.

"This election transcended race," said Roy Hong, executive director of the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and co-chairman of Shockley's campaign. "It's time for [Korean Americans] to show they are willing to work with other communities."

Suh, who was not well-known among Koreans until last year, said people saw him more as a progressive business advocate than as a Korean.

But Charles J. Kim didn't buy that. The executive director of the Korean-American Coalition, who has run numerous campaigns, said Koreans should stay out of races for the 10th District seat.

"The district is heavily black, and African Americans are not ready to accept a nonblack trying to unseat a black," he said.

But that logic didn't ring true in the school board's 5th District, where the electorate is about half Latino.

Yolie Flores Aguilar hoped to beat incumbent David Tokofsky, who is Jewish. But as of Wednesday, Aguilar trailed Tokofsky, hoping at best that votes cast for a write-in candidate might be enough to force the incumbent into a runoff. With absentee ballots still being counted, though, Tokofsky could win the election outright.

Both candidates in the district, which includes portions of the San Fernando Valley and Silver Lake, played down race, hoping to avoid the ugly ethnic politics that shrouded the state Senate contest last year between Richard Alarcon, a Latino, and Richard Katz, who is Jewish.

In the predominantly Latino districts that include the Eastside and the northeast San Fernando Valley, observers say identity politics no longer carry the weight they used to, largely because most candidates are now Latino.

Gone are the days of a "consensus candidate" in those districts, where just one or two Latino politicians enjoyed the support of the entire community, said Gregory Rodriguez of the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy, who has written extensively on race and politics in Los Angeles.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican American activists typically rallied behind their best choice to challenge established white politicians. With a new generation of young Latino politicians entering the fray, Rodriguez said, the strategy has changed.

Almost all 14 candidates in the 14th Council District race, led by Nick Pacheco and Victor Griego, were Latino. Different factions of the Latino political establishment on the Eastside were split in their endorsements.

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