A ferociously contested congressional race in the San Gabriel Valley has emerged as a classic test of the power of ethnic politics in the aftermath of Barack Obama's racial breakthrough in the presidential election.
The election Tuesday to fill the House seat vacated by U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis also spotlights the clashing political aspirations of two of California's fastest growing ethnic groups, Asians and Latinos.
The setting, California's 32nd Congressional District, is one of the state's most diverse and rapidly changing stretches of suburbs. Straddling the 10 Freeway, it includes Rosemead, El Monte, Baldwin Park, Covina and most of Monterey Park.
For a generation after World War II, it was home mainly to blue-collar whites, eclipsed later by Latinos moving from L.A. Today, boulevards lined with as many Cantonese seafood and Vietnamese pho restaurants as taquerias attest to the valley's fast transformation.
Political change has been less swift. It took until 1982 for a Latino to win the valley's core congressional seat, a belated political advance for Latinos. And it is only now that a Chinese American, Judy Chu, stands as a top contender for the House seat.
Should she win, Chu's ascent to Congress would mark a political coming-of-age for Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley. She would be Southern California's only Asian in Congress.
Standing in Chu's way, however, is no small barrier: The inclination of voters to cast ballots along ethnic lines. Latino voters still outnumber Asians by more than 3 to 1 in the district, a blessing for Gil Cedillo, Chu's chief rival.
"The racial and ethnic dimension of this race is going to be fascinating to watch," said political scientist Michael Alvarez of Caltech.
Ethnic tension between all manner of groups is familiar to the area. At the height of the Asian immigration wave of the 1980s, a backlash among longtime residents of Monterey Park sparked a drive to ban foreign-language signs on storefronts. That conflict was part of what spurred Chu's entry into politics.
In the House contest, the best known of a dozen candidates are Chu, now vice chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization, and Cedillo, a state senator. Much of the voting in the heavily Democratic district will no doubt break along ethnic lines. Both Chu and Cedillo are Democrats.
"It's just a natural tendency of people to stick with their own," said Eric Hacopian, a campaign strategist for Democrat Emanuel Pleitez, another Latino vying for the seat.
"If you're from one of the groups on the outs with the power structure, and one of your own is running, it takes a lot of work for you to say, 'OK, I'm not going to vote for the first qualified Latino, I'm not going to vote for the second one,' but instead move over to the next ethnicity."
Yet Chu, a former mayor of Monterey Park, built a multiethnic coalition that propelled her to the state Assembly in 2001, and analysts see her as well positioned to do so again, if not easily.
Like many other Asian candidates in California, Chu has had no choice but to forge ethnic coalitions. No legislative or congressional district in the state is majority Asian.
"The vast majority of successful Asian American politicians have been good crossover candidates," said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a civil rights group.
In Chu's case, she would need perhaps a third of Latinos to join Asians and whites in voting for her. With voter turnout likely to be dismal, Chu's biggest edge is the support of organized labor, a potent force, and a strongly Latino one, in an area heavily populated by union members.
To broaden her reach, Chu is touting support from some of California's best known Latinos, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.
After representing the area for more than a decade, Chu has deeper roots there than Cedillo, who said he moved from downtown L.A. to Monterey Park about three months ago. The state Senate and congressional districts do not overlap, but Cedillo detailed his long family history in the area.
Given her support base and district ties, Chu "meets the criteria for when crossover politics is likely to happen," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.
Cedillo has built his legislative career in no small part on ethnic appeals. His signature issue has been the fight to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. "He has 30 years of public service, fighting for immigrant and working families," a recent Cedillo mailer told voters in English and Spanish.
A former assemblyman and leader of a Service Employees International Union local, Cedillo brushed off labor's support of Chu. "I've always enjoyed the support of the rank and file," he said in an interview last month.
Cedillo has endorsements from prominent Latinos, including L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and county Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Historically, Molina said, there has been "a tremendous interest in making sure that we have representation that's proportional to the people in California who are Latino." At the same time, she stressed the importance of coalition politics, saying it was tough to side with Cedillo over Chu, "because she's been there for us on so many things."
With similar legislative records, the ethnicity of Chu and Cedillo will inevitably stand as a key distinction in the special election. The question is how much weight it will carry.
"Ethnicity is a factor," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. "But it's not the only factor."