Gil Garcetti shed his shoes at the door. Then, with more than a thousand people watching, he stood in his stocking feet before Pramukh Swami Maharaj to accept a divine endorsement--a blessing for his reelection as Los Angeles County district attorney.
"I am here . . . because of my feelings for your community," Garcetti told the Indian American crowd sitting cross-legged in a vast hall at the Swaminarayan Hindu temple in Whittier on Thursday night. "This is also my community."
The crowd was not there for Garcetti so much as for the swami, who is visiting from India and is the spiritual leader of an estimated 1 million people worldwide. But as Garcetti slipped on his shoes outside the hall afterward, a group of worshipers surrounded him. "The blessing will really help you," one man confided.
"I accept it," Garcetti said, with a broad smile animating his face.
The politics of ethnicity is an old and hallowed American tradition. Politicians have long been accustomed to plunging into neighborhoods far different from their own, eating foods they would never consider at home, hearing their words translated into languages they don't understand.
But in few places are the votes of ethnic minorities as important as they are in Los Angeles County, whose population is so diverse that no ethnic group can claim to be a majority. As in other countywide races, the campaign for district attorney has become a head-spinning tour of the virtual U.N. General Assembly that now constitutes Southern California's "local" politics.
Both Garcetti and his challenger, head Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, have been reaching out to ethnic audiences throughout the county. In recent weeks, Garcetti has appeared at a Portuguese American celebration in Artesia, a gathering of young Latino professionals at Universal City and before an Armenian American group in Encino.
In the past 10 days, Cooley has attended campaign fund-raisers sponsored primarily by Chinese Americans in Monterey Park, Armenian Americans in Tarzana and Latinos in Hollywood.
In fact, about an hour before Garcetti received his blessing in Whittier, Cooley was standing before a room of mostly Latino supporters at Lucy's El Adobe Cafe, the cozy Hollywood restaurant where politicians and entertainers have long provided the extra spice in a traditional Cal-Mex menu.
Like Garcetti, Cooley claimed, with equal improbability, to be one with his audience.
"My aunt by marriage is Peruvian," he offered with an impish grin.
His supporters laughed, but repeatedly said they didn't care about Cooley's roots, which he says are English or Irish. It's not important, they said, that he's not Latino.
"I don't care if he is or he's not; I just care if he can do the job," said Patricia Casado, the daughter of Lucy Casado, the restaurant's owner.
She then set out to hang a photograph of Cooley on the restaurant's wall of fame, alongside photos of past political patrons, including Cesar Chavez, Ted Kennedy, Alan Cranston, Bob Dole, former President Gerald Ford, former Gov. Pat Brown and, most famously, former Gov. Jerry Brown, who put Lucy's on the map when he made it his hangout with singer Linda Ronstadt.
As were Dole and Ford, Cooley was something of a rarity at Lucy's: a registered Republican. "We're for the man, not the party," Patricia Casado insisted. As Cooley leaned on the bar, margarita in hand, she appraised him: "He's not perfect, but he'll find the way," she said.
As is often the case, Cooley's supporters at the event were hardest on one of their own--in this case, Garcetti, whose roots are in Mexico (his grandfather Garcetti immigrated to Mexico from Italy).
"Personally, I never considered him Latino," said Arnoldo Casillas, an attorney who is past president of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. "He's a fair-weather Latino. It's kind of a convenient moniker he takes on in certain situations."
In general, however, Garcetti's strongest support is among Latinos. In a Los Angeles Times poll in April, Garcetti trailed Cooley badly among every ethnic group except Latinos, who were split almost evenly between the two candidates. In fact, despite the presence of several Latino lawyers at Cooley's event, the Mexican-American Bar Assn. has endorsed Garcetti.
And while the district attorney might claim that the Indian American community is his own, he seems at his most comfortable among Latino crowds, such as the one he addressed at a party thrown recently by the Latino Professional Network at a Universal City nightclub.
Garcetti spoke repeatedly in the first person plural, as in his references to "those of us in the Latino community." He joked easily, and told the story--repeated at every campaign stop in recent months--of his family's migration from Mexico and his father's troubled years as a gang member.
While Garcetti didn't join the young crowd on the dance floor, he promised them: "I'll be dancing after the election."
Garcetti, Cooley Both Going All Out