With strong backing from labor unions, 26-year-old Alex Padilla won an overwhelming election victory Tuesday over Corinne Sanchez in the race for the northeast San Fernando Valley's 7th District seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
Padilla had captured more than 67% of the vote in late, unofficial returns when he declared victory at 11:20 p.m., crediting his strong showing to a combination of labor and youth that rallied behind his candidacy.
"It's time to declare victory. Now the work begins. What we have now is an opportunity, and we have to make the best of this opportunity to do the best for our community," Padilla told 200 cheering supporters at Casa Torres restaurant in Sylmar.
Padilla is the third-youngest person ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He said his age turned out to help his campaign, not hurt it.
"I know my opponent made an issue of my youth, but that didn't seem to work," Padilla said.
He told reporters he felt confident that voters responded to his campaign, which emphasized that he grew up in the district and set a top priority of improving basic city services. He was also a staunch supporter of charter reform.
"We're very proud of the job we've done, not only tonight but in the past six months," Padilla said. "I feel energized."
He told reporters the first action he would take if elected would be to fix a traffic light near the elementary school he attended as a child.
"This was a victory for a well-oiled political machine," Sanchez said as she conceded victory to Padilla. An obviously discouraged Sanchez referred to Padilla as a "clown dog."
Sanchez, 52, campaigned hard in the last week of the runoff campaign on her qualified support of Valley secession and her opposition to the proposed new city charter--positions at odds with Padilla.
She said Tuesday it appeared many voters were not moved by her positions on secession and her longer resume.
"The one thing that didn't seem to make a difference was my 27 years of experience," she said.
Padilla trounced Sanchez in the April primary, getting twice as many votes. That gave him the advantage in attracting volunteers and besting Sanchez in runoff fund-raising and spending by more than 2 to 1. Padilla reported spending $214,200 through June 2, compared with $83,700 spent by Sanchez.
He also benefited from independent mail and phone campaigns by the California Democratic Party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which put nearly $100,000 into the race, more than Sanchez spent.
Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the federation, said Padilla's story appeared to have inspired young Latino voters.
"There is a great deal of pride about a barrio boy going to MIT and coming back," Contreras said. "The Latino vote is a young vote, and I think this story resonated with young voters."
Contreras was joined by political luminaries including City Atty. James Hahn and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante at Padilla's election-night party at Casa Torres.
Earlier, Sanchez said she had a different feeling about the federation's intervention.
"The impression I get is they think they can buy the election, and I'm out to prove them wrong," Sanchez said.
Sanchez struggled to let voters know she also supports organized labor. The United Farm Workers endorsed her but did not provide much tangible assistance.
In contrast, the county federation, an umbrella group for 400 unions, was able to target its campaign to 13,000 union members in the largely working-class district. The federation added 120 volunteers to the 230 field workers marshaled by Padilla on election day. Sanchez had about 152 volunteers working phones and walking precincts Tuesday.
More than half of Padilla's volunteers were young people who were charged up by the fact that a peer had a chance to get elected in the nation's second-largest city.
Both Padilla and Sanchez walked precincts and then worked the phones Tuesday. Turnout was predicted to be a low 20%.
At stake were the remaining two years of the unexpired term left by Richard Alarcon when he moved up from the 7th District seat to the state Senate in December. Alarcon backed Sanchez, director of the social service agency El Proyecto del Barrio. Sanchez also received endorsements from all five members of the county Board of Supervisors and City Council members Laura Chick, Mike Feuer and Cindy Miscikowski.
Padilla, who lives with his parents in Pacoima, lined up heavyweight support from Mayor Richard Riordan, Councilmen Richard Alatorre and Joel Wachs, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), the county federation and state Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar)--which helped in amassing a full campaign war chest.
The unions were so confident in Padilla that they decided to deploy just 30% of their field volunteers to the 7th District, sending the remaining 70% to the 14th District, where union-backed Victor Griego faced what appeared to union officials to be a stiffer challenge.