Rep. Laura Richardson, right, and a campaign volunteer review incoming… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )
Even before last week's stinging reprimand from her House colleagues, Democrat Laura Richardson's reelection bid was in trouble.
She had been burning through campaign strategists and congressional staffers for months. Debts were mounting. She had finished far behind rival Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) in the June primary, under new election rules that produced several November contests between members of the same party.
Hahn had also won the endorsement of California's Democratic Party, which typically furnishes money, mail ads and volunteers for its chosen candidate. Its imprimatur sends a clear signal to voters in the largely Democratic district.
Longtime Richardson watchers still won't count her out. They say she could fare much better in the fall, when President Obama and statewide tax measures will be on the ballot to motivate a broader electorate than those who voted in the primary. They also cite her grasp of complex issues and knack for solving problems, ability to connect with constituents and capacity for hard work.
"She'll walk precincts every day," said Joey Hill, who was district director for Richardson's congressional operation before the two parted ways — mutually and amicably, he says — days before the primary. "She'll fight to the bitter end; she'll do her own [campaign] mail if she has to."
Some backers say they'll stick with her, including Los Angeles attorney Thomasina M. Reed, who feels an ethnic affinity with the African American candidate and has donated to her campaign.
"We go back many years, and I think she has done a good job," Reed said. "And I'm an African American, and I'd like us to keep our numbers in Congress."
However, most observers — many of whom spoke on condition that they not be identified for fear of angering Richardson — doubt she'll be able to overcome the long odds she faces.
An official scolding doesn't necessarily derail a political career — witness former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.
But the reprimand of Richardson, for misusing government resources by illegally requiring her congressional staff to do campaign work, is new fodder for her opponent: It cites a "callous disregard for her staff and the resources entrusted to her by the American people."
Since shortly after the primary, Hahn's campaign has been working from her San Pedro field office, sending volunteers to register voters at community events, supermarkets and other busy places, said spokesman Dave Jacobson. And the campaign is scheduling "house parties" — small gatherings where voters can meet Hahn — among other activities, he said.
By contrast, Richardson's campaign headquarters, in an unmarked office building in Carson, has been dark since the primary and no one has answered the phone. The candidate's latest campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission showed Richardson with $51,000 more cash than Hahn but also with considerably more debt: $512,441 to Hahn's $191,727.
Jasmyne Cannick, who said this week that she had just joined Richardson's campaign team after working for her years earlier, promised a vigorous race and noted recent upsets in the contests for Inglewood mayor and Los Angeles County district attorney.
"In politics, anything can happen," she said.
The 44th Congressional District, which stretches from San Pedro north through Carson, Compton and north Long Beach to Lynwood and South Gate, was drawn last year under the federal Voting Rights Act to encourage election of an African American. It is not clear how big a factor race will be in November.
Richardson currently represents a considerably larger part of the district than Hahn does and moved there from Long Beach after the new voting maps came out. Hahn is white, but she has strong ties to many black voters — as did her father, longtime county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn — and already lived in the district.
Some African Americans criticized Hahn for running there. Most black members of Congress and the Legislature backed Richardson; some other black leaders stayed on the sidelines.
That has been changing, however. Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton), who dropped out of the race, threw his support to Hahn, as did Darren Parker, head of the state party's African American Caucus. Both men were influential in Hahn's getting the party endorsement, insiders said.
Dermot Givens, a Los Angeles attorney and political consultant, predicted that the House reprimand will encourage blacks who had stayed out of the race to vote for Hahn.
"Now," said Givens, who has not endorsed either candidate, "they'll have an excuse to come out more publicly" for Richardson's rival.