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Richardson leads Oropeza in race for Congress

The candidates seek to represent the 37th Congressional District.

June 27, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Assemblywoman Laura Richardson pulled ahead of her closest Democratic rival, state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, and was leading a field crowded with 16 other candidates in early returns from Tuesday's special primary election to fill the congressional seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald.

But because neither Richardson or Oropeza would receive 50% of the vote, the top Democratic vote-getter would face a runoff against the other parties' top candidates Aug. 21. The heavily Democratic 37th Congressional District encompasses Compton, Carson, much of Long Beach and parts of South Los Angeles.

Tuesday's early results underscore the battle that Oropeza, who had been considered the front-runner, faced in her bid to become the first Latina to represent the ethnically diverse district. Blacks make up roughly 25% of registered voters and Latinos about 20%.

Early results showed Richardson, who is African American, with 36.79% of the total, versus Oropeza with 29.52%. In third place was Democrat Valerie McDonald, daughter of Millender-McDonald, with 10.38%, followed by Republican John Kanaley with 8.30%.

Voter turnout was very low, with absentee-ballot drives by both leading candidates an important element of campaign strategies. By Tuesday, more than 10,000 absentee ballots had been processed by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder in the district that has 265,000 registered voters.

"I don't think too many people are excited," said Nick Medosch, a poll worker at Hughes Middle School in Long Beach, where only a few dozen voters cast ballots out of 680 registered voters.

Richardson and Oropeza, both fresh off November election victories, garnered more money and endorsements than any of the other candidates.

Oropeza, who served in the Assembly from 2000 to 2006 before her election to the state Senate in November, picked up endorsements from the California Democratic Party, the Latino Legislative Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But she said she was hurt by Richardson's far larger army of volunteers, which was augmented by backers from labor unions. Oropeza called Tuesday's weak turnout "really sad. We're finding a lot of people don't know there's an election.

"It's been difficult to get the word out," she said.

Richardson, a former aide to Millender-McDonald who served on the Long Beach City Council until she was elected to the Assembly in November, was backed by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the California Legislative Black Caucus and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Richardson credited her campaign voters for her success in the early vote tallies. "We have so many volunteers, we have four offices and they're reaching people. People realize that this congressional seat is important."

McDonald, who had strong support from Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), local churches and other political leaders, was initially considered a threat to capture the seat formerly represented by her mother. McDonald is the executive director of the African American Women Health and Education Foundation in Carson, a nonprofit founded by her mother. But her campaign faltered in the end.

An early poll showed that McDonald or Richardson, both African American, would beat Oropeza if only one of them ran but that Oropeza would win if both stayed in the race.

As the six-week campaign neared an end, the race focused on Oropeza and Richardson. Both candidates released polls, each showing that person in the lead.

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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