For months, Democrat Larry Caballero sat back and watched his two Republican rivals tear each other to pieces. Now it's his turn to fight.
Caballero, 60, finished third in last week's three-person special election for a vacant state Senate seat in Orange County. But because no one got a majority vote, he will represent the Democrats in an uphill runoff election June 6 against Republican Assemblyman Tom Harman of Huntington Beach.
"I was really tickled pink" by the results, said Caballero, of La Palma. "Voters weren't interested in all of the negative campaigning."
While his opponents each spent hundred of thousands of dollars campaigning, he bragged that he did it without spending a dime.
Harman won with 38.8% of the vote; Dana Point City Councilwoman Diane Harkey got 38.5%, and Caballero got 22.7%. The results were certified Monday. Harkey has asked for a recount, and it will begin Wednesday, said Neal Kelley, acting Orange County registrar of voters.
Whoever his opponent is, the Democrat knows he faces a tough challenge in the 35th state Senate District. It's the most Republican Senate district in the state, and Caballero is not all that well known.
Just ask Republican strategist Adam Probolsky, who worked for Harkey. "There are certain truths to life that hold steady, and a Republican getting elected in the 35th district is just one of them," he said. Caballero shouldn't take it personally, he said. "He may be a nice guy. The voters may trust him to watch their children on Saturday night. But he ain't getting elected."
Caballero was unruffled. "I'm not going to let the Democratic voters down who want an alternative to Tom Harman," he said. "I know education issues. I'm an environmentalist. I support the working middle class. And illegal immigrants are getting a raw deal."
Harman said he was "kind of intrigued" by his opponent because he knew so little about him. He added that he was not taking him for granted and would campaign vigorously.
"I'm treating it very seriously," he said.
Harman's team members said they had already come up with a strategy. They will keep a close eye on the election, said campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobs, and concentrate on getting a large Republican turnout June 6.
With an overwhelming Republican majority in the district, "the likelihood of a Democrat winning is the likelihood of hell freezing over," she said.
Born and raised in the south Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, Caballero has been politically active ever since he volunteered for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968, the same year he started teaching high school in Whittier. Most of his teaching career was spent in Wilmington.
Caballero has worked behind the scenes on many campaigns, including ones for Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana).
Caballero retired from full-time teaching in 2001, but he continues to teach history and government at South Gate Community Adult School.
An avid collector of political memorabilia for more than 20 years, Caballero displays his treasures in his La Palma home, where he lives with his wife of nearly 36 years.
Caballero cites Mexican American labor leader Cesar Chavez and civil rights activist the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes. A lifelong Democrat, Caballero says he identifies with the party's stance for social justice. "That's the difference between a Democrat and a Republican," he said.
Caballero said his opponents in last week's primary were a "disappointment," and it was their views on illegal immigrants that induced him to run. He said he wanted immigrants to know "that not everyone in the 35th thinks they're criminals or terrorists."
If elected, Caballero says, he will work for public education, affordable healthcare and affordable prescription drugs for senior citizens. And he's not worried about his lack of political experience. "I can do the job," he said. "If you can be an inner-city schoolteacher for 33 years, you can do anything."
Caballero finds hope in the fact that only 19% of eligible voters participated in last week's primary. "Eighty-one percent of the registered voters in one of the richest, most educated districts didn't bother to vote," he said, suggesting that indicates how fed up voters are.
Caballero believes that because he is not a career politician, voters will view him as refreshing. "I have a lot of neighbors who said they never voted for a Democrat but would vote for me," he said.
The Democratic Party paid his registration fee, but Caballero said that so far he had yet to spend any money on his campaign. But his tactics may change somewhat. He said he might pay $3,000 to get a statement printed in sample ballots sent to voters, and might seek endorsements and letters of support from other elected officials and power brokers.
Still, most Democratic strategists think Caballero shouldn't get his hopes up. Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine, points out that most incumbents have made sure their district boundaries are drawn to their advantage. In Republican-dominated Orange County, "historically, most Democrats are sacrificial lambs," he said.
But Jim Moreno, regional director of the Orange County Democratic Party, insists that's not what Caballero is.
"If we don't show this year that we have viable Democrats, then what's there to look forward to?" he said, explaining that Orange County Democrats are going through a rebuilding process. "The Yankees didn't become champions overnight."