44th District congressional candidate Janice Hahn high-fives volunteer… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Willie D. Smith broke into a wide grin when he spotted Rep. Laura Richardson campaigning in his Carson neighborhood one recent Saturday.
"This is so cool!" Smith, 43, exclaimed as he greeted the congresswoman, who was walking door-to-door along a well-tended stretch of Gladwick Street. "I'm telling my people to vote for you."
That's the kind of response Richardson is counting on in her tough reelection battle with a fellow Democrat, Rep. Janice Hahn of San Pedro. The two congresswomen are vying for the same seat in the wake of last year's redistricting and new primary election rules that allowed members of the same party to advance to November.
The battle for the largely minority, working-class district has implications for California's African Americans, who will see their numbers in Congress diminish if Hahn, who is white, defeats Richardson next week.
"I don't think there is anybody in the [Congressional Black Caucus] who is anti-Janice Hahn," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), chair of the caucus, whose members all have endorsed Richardson. "Everybody likes her, and I like her as well, but we are never going to say that it's OK that we lose a seat at this point in our history," when issues of racial equality are not resolved, Cleaver said.
The largely coastal South Bay district that Hahn had won in a special election was sliced away in the remapping, leaving her home in new territory that a coalition of African American leaders had expected would elect a black representative. Hahn's main alternative was to challenge a more seasoned Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who ended up with much of her old district. She chose to stay put, and Richardson, seeing that more than half of her own turf wound up in the new district, decided to run against Hahn.
Richardson, 50, has had an uphill climb ever since. She was fined and reprimanded earlier this year after a House Ethics Committee investigation determined she had improperly pressured her congressional staff to do campaign work. Several local newspapers have endorsed Hahn, 60, in part because of the ethics matter.
In addition, Richardson has had trouble financing her campaign. She recently reported having $70,700 left to spend and more than $532,000 in debts. Hahn had nearly $144,000 left and owed a little more than $191,700.
The California Democratic Party endorsed Hahn, who also cut into a chunk of Richardson's traditional labor backing. And a few weeks ago, Richardson's longtime mentor and key campaign advisor, former lieutenant governor and lawmaker Mervyn M. Dymally, died after a brief illness.
Richardson, who in the past has won tough elections to Assembly and Congress, is banking on the connections she has made with constituents during her five years in the House. She cites 1,374 cases in which she has helped residents cut through red tape and other impediments to solve problems. "People have issues and they need help," she said.
The campaigns have turned on who can better serve the solidly Democratic 44th Congressional District, which stretches from the Port of Los Angeles north through parts of South L.A. and into Watts, Carson, Compton, South Gate and Lynwood. Latinos make up 68% of the population and 46% of the registration. The rest of the population is 17% black, 7% white and 5.5% Asian, according to the California Target Book, which tracks political contests.
"My theme is 'I get it, I understand,' " said Richardson, who grew up in a single-parent, mixed-race family and worked to help supplement her mother's union wages and put herself through college. She finished 20 points behind Hahn in the June primary and said she believes the higher November turnout will help her close the gap.
Although Hahn has been in Congress for little more than a year, she represented the Los Angeles part of the district during a decade on the City Council, working on port safety, environmental matters and gang violence. Her father, longtime county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, was deeply admired by many in the African American community. Her brother, James Hahn, was Los Angeles city attorney and mayor and is now a Superior Court judge.
Janice Hahn, addressing a forum at Cal State Dominguez Hills last week, called the November election a test of "this new district's priorities and values, and what the future will bring us." As she often does on the campaign trail, she mentioned her father and how he "taught me the importance of public service and giving residents a voice in government." And she promised to "fight every day to make sure that everyone in this district has an opportunity to succeed and has a fair shot at the American Dream."