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Young first-time candidate roils race

32ND CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT

Emanuel Pleitez, 26, hopes to replace Hilda Solis. He is given little chance to win but could swing votes.

May 11, 2009|Jean Merl

He's just 26 and making his first election bid in a crowded field of candidates that includes two seasoned, well-financed officeholders -- just the sort of hopeful who usually gets lost in the pack.

But Emanuel Pleitez has collected enough money -- much of it in online donations from across the nation -- to put on a substantive mail campaign, bolstered by an energetic staff of young volunteers. And, as he and his volunteers talk to voters in the 32nd Congressional District before the May 19 special election, opponents and politics-watchers alike are taking notice.

From the start, the 12-candidate race to fill the seat vacated by now-U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has been viewed as essentially a contest between two Democrats -- state Sen. Gil Cedillo and Board of Equalization vice chairwoman and former Assembly member Judy Chu. Now, some are coming to view Democrat Pleitez as a potential spoiler who could split the Latino vote and swing the race to Chu, an Asian American in the San Gabriel Valley-based district, in which Latinos form the largest registered voter group.

Most experts still expect that the victory will go to Cedillo or Chu, known figures who have big campaign bankrolls and a slew of endorsements.

"One of those two is going to win that race," said veteran campaign consultant Rick Taylor.

But if Pleitez makes a credible showing in the polls and runs a "good, clean campaign, that sets him up for the next race, and there will be several seats opening" in the area at various levels of government, Taylor said.

Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said he saw no chance for Pleitez to win. "But the more he can identify himself as a young, smart Latino and appeal to young voters," Regalado said, the more "he becomes a wild card in terms of how he will affect a close race."

Pleitez said he is not interested in other races.

"I feel best prepared for this office," Pleitez said during a recent interview in his crowded El Sereno campaign headquarters.

A federal office "is where I can make the most impact" on such issues as the economy and the housing crisis, added Pleitez, who said he decided to run on Dec. 20, shortly after President Obama nominated Solis to the Cabinet post. He soon left Washington, D.C., where he had been working for the Treasury Department transition team, and moved back to his mother's home in El Sereno.

Eric Hacopian, an experienced local consultant who is overseeing Pleitez's campaign, insists that the newcomer has a shot at pulling off an upset.

"We're in it to win it," Hacopian said, "not for some respectable showing for the future."

By election day, the campaign will have raised "well over" the $202,000 reported so far, he said. That is substantially less than Chu. But it is enough to enable the campaign to send 12 or 13 political mailers to targeted voters, Hacopian said.

Volunteers are making contact with 1,200 to 1,500 registered voters a day, he said.

Pleitez is offering himself as a fresh alternative to voters disillusioned with the political establishment.

Born to immigrant parents and raised in poverty by a single mother on Los Angeles' East Side, Pleitez likes to tell voters that the family moved 10 times by the time he was 9, sometimes living in converted garages and friends' bedrooms. He excelled at Woodrow Wilson High School and attended Stanford University on a scholarship.

"I want to give back to this community, which gave me so many opportunities," Pleitez said.

He campaigned for John Kerry for president in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and got involved in several community service projects, including helping found an alumni support group for Wilson High and mentoring students. He quit his job as a financial analyst with Goldman Sachs to join the transition team.

The Cedillo and Chu campaigns predicted that Pleitez would not have much effect.

"I think he's doing a good job of mobilizing a nontraditional base," said Chu campaign consultant Parke Skelton, who said he thinks the likely low turnout would hurt, not help, Pleitez.

"He'll be a factor, but not a huge factor," Skelton said, adding that he believes that Pleitez could draw as many voters from Chu as from Cedillo -- an assessment most others interviewed did not agree with.

"I don't think he plays a major factor . . . except among the chattering class," said Derek Humphrey, who is managing Cedillo's campaign.

Nonetheless, the Cedillo campaign sent out a mailer recently that featured photos of a partying Pleitez that it said it got from his Facebook page. "Should this man represent you in the House of Representatives?" the mailer asks, "Or in Animal House?"

Most saw the mailer as evidence that Cedillo is worried.

"If they didn't feel he was a serious candidate, they wouldn't be attacking him," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College who co-wrote "Epic Journey," a book on the 2008 presidential election.

Pitney said it appears that Pleitez has patterned his campaign on Obama's in that he has used community organizing to reach voters, turned to the Internet to raise money and "inspired a great deal of volunteer work."

Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican campaign consultant whose nonpartisan California Target Book tracks legislative races, said the expected low turnout, probably 20% to 25%, on top of the anti-incumbent sentiment afoot in much of the state and nation today, could work well for Pleitez.

"The lower the turnout, the more powerful grass-roots, personal contact campaigning becomes," Hoffenblum said. He stopped short of saying Pleitez could win.

"He's surely making a name for himself," Hoffenblum said. "I'll give him that."

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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