The appointment of Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis as Labor secretary has prompted 12 candidates to jump into a rare special election to replace her in the San Gabriel Valley-based 32nd Congressional District.
Most politics experts, however, see the May 19 primary race as essentially a two-way contest between two seasoned, liberal Democrats: state Sen. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles and state Board of Equalization member and former Assemblywoman Judy Chu of Monterey Park.
Already, Cedillo and Chu have far outdistanced the others -- six Democrats, three Republicans and a Libertarian -- in fundraising and in backing from influential groups and prominent politicians.
The race, with a Latino and an Asian American as front-runners, is a harbinger of future Los Angeles-area politics, with diminishing numbers of older white voters and members of growing minority groups competing for offices, said Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
"You are going to see Latinos and Asians and Pacific Islanders running against each other," said Regalado, who said it is not unusual to have so many candidates run for a rare open congressional seat.
"It's a glamour race that is going to bring people out of the woodwork to run," Regalado said.
And, because congressional offices are not subject to term limits, the seat is especially attractive to state elected officials tired of scrambling to find another post as they face being termed out of their jobs.
Both Cedillo and Chu are "seasoned veterans with no place else to go," Regalado added, "and that's what makes the stakes so very high."
Voters will find all 12 candidates on their ballot, regardless of party affiliation. Such a large field makes it unlikely that any single candidate can garner the majority needed to win the race outright. In that case, the top finishers in each party will meet in a July 14 runoff.
In the largely blue-collar district, Latinos account for more than 60% of the population and 48% of registered voters, while Asian Americans make up 19% of the district's population and 13% of its voter roll.
Democrats hold a 52% to 23% registration edge over Republicans, prompting the California Target Book, which tracks political races in the state, to label the seat "safe Democratic."
Even before the filing period closed earlier this month, the race showed signs of some sharp elbows.
Judy Chu supporters suspect that Republican Betty Tom Chu, a Monterey Park councilwoman and a political opponent of Judy Chu, entered the race to confuse voters and harm the chances of her distant relative by marriage. Tom Chu said last week she did not have time to discuss her candidacy, but earlier told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that she is running because she could not support any of the other candidates and wanted to offer voters an alternative.
Apparently motivated by concerns that the large number of Latino candidates in the race would split the vote in that group and give Judy Chu the edge, there also were signs of jockeying.
Democratic candidate Francisco Alonso, a former mayor of Monterey Park, and a campaign official for Democratic actor/filmmaker Stefan "Contreras" Lysenko each said Cedillo called them shortly before filing closed and urged them to drop out. A Cedillo spokesman said the state senator was merely inviting the others to "work together" with him and did not intend to discourage them from running.
A campaign consultant for Democrat Emanuel Pleitez, who was a member of the Treasury Department presidential transition team, said Latino leaders whom he did not name urged him not to make the run this time, saying the 26-year-old financial analyst had not yet "paid his dues."
Making his first run for elected office, Pleitez has gathered a group of young staff members and volunteers and reported last week to the Federal Election Commission that he had raised nearly $153,000 for the race by March 31.
That amount put him third behind Chu, who reported collecting just over $770,000, and Cedillo, who raised $568,000.
A Republican in the race, South El Monte restaurant owner Teresa Hernandez, who said she had been campaigning nearly full time for weeks, reported raising about $71,000. No other candidates had filed with the FEC by last week's reporting deadline.
Cedillo, who will be termed out of his Senate seat next year, was a labor leader before being elected to the state Assembly, where he served two terms. He gained perhaps his highest public visibility through his legislative efforts to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. His many endorsers include Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, county Sheriff Lee Baca, county Supervisor Gloria Molina, eight of the 15 Los Angeles City Council members, several members of Congress, several of his colleagues in the Legislature and the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.
Chu, who left her Assembly seat to win election to the Board of Equalization in 2006, also has strong ties to labor and scored the backing of the politically powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the California Teachers Assn. On Saturday, she won unanimous backing from the state Democratic Party.
Her other backers include United Farmworkers co-founder Dolores Huerta, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, several members of Congress and the Legislature, and a long list of local elected officials.
The other Democrats on the ballot are Benita Duran, a former district deputy to Solis; attorney Nick Juan Mostert, and Rafael F. Nadal, a kitchen designer and advocate for homeless veterans and senior citizens.
The third Republican candidate is David A. Truax, a business owner and police chaplain.
As the only Libertarian on the ballot, Christopher M. Agrella is assured of a spot in the July 14 runoff if nobody wins the seat in next month's primary.