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Seeking political lessons in 32nd District race

As Judy Chu emerges as the likely winner in the July 14 runoff for the heavily Democratic district, observers say newcomer Emanuel Pleitez cut into support for Gil Cedillo, who finished second.

May 23, 2009|Jean Merl

A campaign that made the most of Judy Chu's strong ties to the San Gabriel Valley, her skills as a coalition-builder and her support from organized labor is credited with propelling her to the front of a crowded field in Tuesday's hot race for the vacant 32nd Congressional District seat.

Chu, a former local school board member, Monterey Park city councilwoman and Democratic member of the state Assembly -- and current vice chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization -- outdistanced opponents in most of the largely working-class district's communities.

They include Azusa, Covina, El Monte, Duarte, Monterey Park, Rosemead and West Covina, according to voting data released this week by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office.

"Basically, she ran very strongly just about everywhere," Chu campaign consultant Parke Skelton said.

She took nearly 32% of the vote, well short of the majority needed to win the seat outright. In the July 14 runoff, she will face Republican Betty Tom Chu, a cousin by marriage, who got about 10% of the vote Tuesday, and Libertarian Christopher M. Agrella, who won a little more than 1%.

But because the district is so strongly Democratic, Judy Chu is widely expected to win the runoff easily.

"It's over now," said Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo, who won a little more than 23% of the vote and finished second among the eight Democrats on the ballot, got the most votes in heavily Latino areas -- such cities as Baldwin Park and South El Monte and unincorporated areas east of Los Angeles.

However, political newcomer and former financial analyst Emanuel Pleitez, who grew up in the Eastside neighborhood of El Sereno, posted a strong first-place finish there and in neighboring Los Angeles city areas.

Pleitez, 26, raised enough money for targeted mail and reached out to nontraditional voters with a corps of volunteers that included young people from across the United States. He finished third overall with nearly 14% of the vote.

Although Pleitez clearly cut into the votes for fellow Latino Cedillo -- as Republican Betty Tom Chu almost certainly drew some voters from Democrat Judy Chu -- most seasoned political observers believe Cedillo would have lost even if Pleitez hadn't run, albeit by a slimmer margin.

Latinos make up nearly half of the district's registered voters, while Asians -- Judy Chu is Chinese American -- account for an estimated 13%.

Chu appears to have won about one-third of the Latino vote, preliminary analyses indicate, plus virtually all the Asian vote and most of the white vote.

Within the Cedillo campaign, there was a strong belief that Pleitez "has cost us a Latino congressional seat and that has stirred up a lot of feelings," said a campaign staffer who requested anonymity because no one was authorized to speak publicly about the loss.

The seat previously was held by Democrat Hilda Solis of El Monte, a Latina who resigned to become U.S. Labor secretary.

Pleitez appears to have done well among younger voters and English-speaking Latinos, including many who probably would not have voted for Cedillo even if the younger man had not been in the race, several political analysts said.

"He took some of Judy's votes and also some white votes from people who liked the outsider," said Eric Hacopian, Pleitez's campaign consultant.

And although Hacopian acknowledged that Pleitez had undoubtedly cut into Cedillo's Latino base, he contended it was not enough to swing the race to Chu. A good chunk of Pleitez's support came from people who would not otherwise have voted, Hacopian added.

Hacopian said Cedillo's supporters, including many of the area's prominent Latino politicians, should not blame Pleitez for the loss but should welcome him as a fresh face who can bring in new voters.

"They did not run a good campaign," Hacopian added. "They got out-hustled by a bunch of kids."

But Regalado said he saw Cedillo as the underdog from the start.

He said Chu is better known in the district (Cedillo had recently moved in from his nearby state Senate district in Los Angeles), is a stronger campaign fundraiser and has a track record as a coalition-builder, attracting votes and other support from across ethnic lines.

"Gil ran what most thought was a good campaign, though not a great campaign," Regalado said. "He was able to raise money and introduce himself to a lot of new people" but could not overcome Chu's advantages.

Chu also had support from labor leaders, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which put $150,000 into urging its members to vote for her. Skelton, Chu's consultant, believes much of her Latino vote came from union members.

Miguel Santiago, Chu's campaign manager, said a strategy was to introduce her to voters outside her old Assembly district (now represented by her husband, Mike Eng), where she already was well known.

The campaign turned to elected officials and other community leaders whom Chu had worked with previously and who were supporting her, and asked them to arrange meetings with likely voters in their communities.

"We took a very local approach, using her relationships and her better understanding of the district," Santiago said.

On the weekend before the election, Santiago said, Chu spent hours in the campaign headquarters calling voter after voter, engaging them in sometimes-lengthy conversations and leaving personal voice mail messages for those who didn't answer the phone.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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