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Filling seat for 51st Assembly District is a lesson in special elections

Five Democrats and one Republican are vying for the spot. These races are usually costly, low-turnout affairs in which multiple candidates split the vote, resulting in a second round of balloting.

August 09, 2009|Jean Merl

Mark Ridley-Thomas' election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last fall already has spawned three special elections for legislative seats. And there will be a fourth if none of the six candidates on the Sept. 1 ballot for the 51st Assembly District can muster a majority.

The field consists of five Democrats -- two members of city councils, a water board member who formerly served on a local school board, a 20-year-old making his first bid for elected office and a perennial candidate.

The lone Republican is guaranteed a spot in the runoff -- should there be one -- but faces nearly impossible odds, given that almost two-thirds of registered voters in the district are Democrats.

Under California law, vacant legislative seats can be filled only by special elections -- usually costly, low-turnout affairs that often require a second round of balloting before someone can garner the majority vote needed to win. A runoff would be held Nov. 3.

The March 24 special primary to fill the 26th State Senate District seat left open by Ridley-Thomas is a case in point. It cost county taxpayers $2.2 million, and fewer than 8% of voters turned out, according to the registrar-recorder's office.

With eight candidates in the open primary, the front-runner, then-Assemblyman Curren D. Price (D-Inglewood) wasn't able to win a majority, so he found himself in a lopsided May 19 runoff with a Republican and a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. Price got nearly 71% of the runoff vote, triggering yet another special election, this one to fill his Assembly seat.

"This is a really important election, so we're working hard to get people to vote," said Tina S. McKinnor, president of the Lawndale Democratic Club. "We need a representative that is going to pay attention to all the communities in this district, who can bring resources across the district."

The 51st Assembly District stretches east from Westchester and Lawndale to include Inglewood, Hawthorne and Gardena; unincorporated communities including Del Aire, Alondra Park and Lennox; and some parts of Los Angeles.

It's an ethnically diverse, largely working-class district that over the years has seen aerospace and well-paying blue-collar jobs depart and several hospitals close, giving nationwide concerns over the economy and healthcare access a particularly local intensity.

Latinos make up 44% of the population, with blacks accounting for 31%, whites 14%, Asians and others 11%, according to 2000 U.S. Census data. One-third of residents did not finish high school, and the median household income, adjusted to 2008 dollars, is $49,400.

Gardena City Councilman Steven Bradford -- who lost to Price by just 113 votes in the 2006 primary race for the Assembly seat -- is widely considered the front-runner. He has raised by far the most money -- $192,000 by the end of the last reporting period. And he has the backing of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and several labor groups, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Bradford has picked up endorsements from the California Democratic Party and from a slew of local elected officials, including Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and his former political opponent and the man he would replace, Sen. Price.

Bradford, who recently made waves with his proposal to fine youths wearing "saggy pants" in Gardena, was an aide to the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald and currently is a public affairs manager for Southern California Edison.

"I've been a coalition builder my whole career," said Bradford, who sees the main issues as providing better healthcare access, creating jobs and cleaning up polluted former industrial sites.

Most observers expect Bradford's strongest competition to come from Gloria D. Gray, a retired healthcare administrator and former president of the Inglewood Unified School District Board who currently serves as vice president of the West Basin Municipal Water District Board.

Gray has deep roots in the district and currently serves as a county healthcare commissioner and as Ridley-Thomas' appointee to the county's Clean Water and Beaches task force.

But she got a late start in fundraising and so far has reported receiving just $25,700, $20,000 of which is a loan from herself.

She offers herself as the most experienced candidate:

"I am prepared to tackle California budget priorities because of my experience at both the local and regional levels of government," said Gray, who advocates universal access to healthcare and continued funding for programs such as in-home support services, adult day care for the disabled and help for HIV/AIDS patients.

Two-term Lawndale City Councilman Robert Pullen-Miles, a district representative for state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), said he offers the right blend of insider knowledge and outsider independence.

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