Thomas Elias: Race the only issue in special congress election |

Thomas Elias: Race the only issue in special congress election

No matter how well Illinois Sen. Barack Obama does in Democratic presidential polls, no matter how often the claim is made that Obama’s progress shows American politics have moved beyond race, don’t believe it.

That’s the message of the race now underway in California’s 37th Congressional District, represented for the last 11 years by the late Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald, an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus who died suddenly in April.

This race is nothing like last year’s special election for the San Diego County seat vacated by the convicted bribe-taker Duke Cunningham, a contest that hinged on party politics and degree of support or opposition to the war in Iraq.

There are no such issues as yet in this contest, where the June 26 Democratic primary election winner will be almost certain of a runoff victory in a district that John Kerry carried with a 74 percent vote in 2004, one where Millender-McDonald usually got 75 percent of the vote without any campaigning.

There are few differences of opinion among the two Democrats most analysts see as early leaders in this race, first-year Assemblywoman Laura Richardson and state Sen. Jenny Oropeza, both from Long Beach. The Los Angeles County district covers the western two-thirds of Long Beach, plus the cities of Carson and Compton.

Hearing the geography of this district, most casual observers would figure this as a slam-dunk to remain in the hands of an African-American Democrat like Richardson or one Millender-McDonald’s daughter Valerie.

But things aren’t quite the same these days as when the gangsta rapper N .W.A. released his album “Straight Outta Compton,” which established the city in the public mind as one of the most solidly black bastions in America.

Compton now is a majority Latino city, even though African-Americans hold all its major political offices because they vote in far higher proportions than Hispanics. The entire 37th district, once had a solid black population plurality and still has no ethnic majority. But where 10 years ago, it was 33.6 percent black, today it is only 22.7 percent African-American – but 47.6 percent Hispanic.

That makes this district symbolic of urban California, where hundreds of thousands of middle-class blacks have moved to suburbs as Latino immigrants moved into their old ‘hoods.

It’s also symbolic of the diminishing influence of African-Americans in California politics. Where the Legislature once had a large black caucus with the African-American Willie Brown as Assembly speaker, today there’s not even one black legislator among the delegation from the entire San Francisco Bay area. Even the district of the formidable Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters in South Los Angeles now has a Latino plurality.

One result of this kind of demographic change has been a succession of Latino legislative leaders in Sacramento, with first Fresno’s Cruz Bustamante and then current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and now Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles becoming Assembly speakers.

So far, the Black Caucus in Congress, now 42 strong, far outnumbers the 24-member Hispanic Caucus.

The Black Caucus wants to maintain that numbers edge. Led by former Congressman and former Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, most black politicos including former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown are behind one black candidate in the 37th, Richardson. But not all of them. While Dymally rejected the notion of staying neutral or endorsing Millender-McDonald’s daughter Valerie, telling a reporter that “The offspring phenomenon has not been successful,” daughter McDonald has the solid support of neighboring Congresswoman Diane Watson.

Watson and McDonald are not heeding the call of Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan, the Black Caucus chairwoman, who urged voters to “send us another bad sister,” meaning Richardson.

Dymally wants black unity because in a special election, all candidates are listed together regardless of party affiliation, with the leading vote-getters from each party making the runoff, to be held in August this time if no one gets a majority in June. So if Latino voters should split while black voters unite behind one candidate, African-Americans could hold onto this district despite its large Latino plurality. But if blacks divide between Richardson and McDonald, they can probably forget keeping this seat, so long as Oropeza has no significant Latino competition.

So far, that’s about the only controversy in this election. With Richardson, McDonald and Oropeza vowing to “carry on the legacy of Juanita Millender-McDonald,” and with all of them loud admirers of candidate McDonald’s mom, there’s not much difference among them except ethnicity.

Yet this race promises to be as hard-fought as any contest where candidates have vastly different stances on key issues.

Which means that anyone who claims race, family and ethnicity no longer matter much in American politics must be completely naïve.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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