A behind-the-scenes effort to rally support around a single African American candidate in the 37th Congressional District race suffered a major setback this week after the daughter of the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald refused to withdraw her name from the list of contenders.
Valerie Josanne McDonald, executive director of the African American Women Health and Education Foundation in Carson, is expected to kick off her campaign today for the congressional seat her mother held from 1996 until her death last month.
"I'm in the race, and I'm in the race to win," she said. "I've talked to my family. I've talked to my pastor. This has been a soul-searching decision."
McDonald, who has never held public office, has been under pressure from black elected officials to support Assemblywoman Laura Richardson (D-Long Beach), a more seasoned candidate considered by many to have a better chance of winning and keeping the seat in African American hands.
With Richardson and McDonald in the race, the black vote could be divided, increasing the likelihood that state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), another major candidate, will win and become the first Latina to represent the diverse district that encompasses Compton, Carson, much of Long Beach and parts of South Los Angeles.
An effort to build a consensus around one African American candidate was made last week at a closed-door meeting of the California Legislative Black Caucus. After the meeting in Los Angeles, the caucus endorsed Richardson, who has lined up other major endorsements.
Among those giving an early nod to Richardson are Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), who leads the nine-member caucus and is a Richardson supporter, said the gathering was not held to select a candidate but to have "a conversation, explore problems and possibilities" with the race.
"With Valerie in the race, it creates serious problems for Richardson," he said. "Valerie's mother was popular in Carson and Compton. The name will have appeal. There'll be a sympathy vote."
Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson, who was asked to mediate between the two candidates, said Richardson has the greater chance of winning because she has a base in Long Beach, which is the largest portion of the congressional district.
"This is not a usual campaign," Wesson said. "It's more like a sprint. You have to have someone who has campaign experience, an apparatus and can hit the ground quickly and line up endorsements quickly."
But Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) said the meeting was a sham. "It was already decided," said Watson, who opposes the caucus' endorsement and has thrown her support behind McDonald. "If anyone should get out of the race it should be Laura."
A recent poll of 400 likely voters commissioned by the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project showed that either McDonald or Richardson would beat Oropeza if only one of them ran but that Oropeza would win if both stay in the race.
State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who founded the voter registration project, said African Americans should focus their voting strength on one candidate.
"I'm holding out hope that someone will get a clue," he said. "I wish we could resolve this in such a way to maximize the opportunity to retain the seat. The current path is untenable."
Candidates have until Monday to file for the June 26 special election. The winner will serve out the remainder of Millender-McDonald's two-year term.