Note: We are proud to bring you this article from Joshua Grossman, the founder of the outstanding website ProgressivePunch.org and a social entrepreneur with a background in a wide variety of endeavors such as co-founding North America's largest environmentally-friendly paper company, New Leaf Paper. Joshua has closely tracked politics in all 435 Congressional Districts across the United States since he was 13 years old when he memorized all the names of the members of Congress as well as their voting records and the political demography of their districts. Joshua will be a periodic contributor to FiveThirtyEight.com. Disclosure: Joshua is acquaintances with Parke Skelton, Judy Chu's campaign manager.
On May 19th there will be a special election in California’s 32nd District to replace Hilda Solis, who has become Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor. Special Congressional elections are low turn-out affairs in general. That’s especially the case in low turn-out districts such as this one. The 32nd is one of many predominantly minority (Latino and/or African American and/or Asian) Congressional Districts in Los Angeles County, where winning the Democratic Party nomination is tantamount to winning the general election.
The Landscape: In special elections California has a “jungle” primary, where all candidates run against each other on the same ballot, regardless of party. If a candidate receives 50 percent + 1 vote then he/she becomes the new member of Congress from that district. If no one achieves a majority, then there is a run-off election. The run-off is NOT necessarily between the top two vote getters. In fact, in these heavily one-party districts, these run-offs are almost never between the top two vote getters. That’s because the top two vote getters, and often the top three or four, are Democrats. Run-offs in California special elections – if they’re needed – are held between the top vote getter from each party in the original jungle primary.
We have at least one recent precedent to get a better sense for what the results might look like. In the nearby 37th Congressional District there was a special election and run-off in June and August of 2007. Of the 265,000 registered voters in the 37th, 32,700 voted in the primary. A Democrat, Laura Richardson, won the hotly-contested primary with the grand total of 11,956 votes. The vast majority of the rest of the votes cast also went to Democrats. Turn-out actually declined further in the general election (held since Richardson won under 50 percent of the total vote in the primary) but Richardson won easily with a whopping total of 9,960 votes. Richardson has since distinguished herself in Congress largely by having defaulted on more home loans (eight) than any other member of Congress, perhaps giving her unique insight on America’s mortgage crisis.
Unions are often critical in these very low turn-out elections. They absolutely can be the determining factor as they were in Richardson’s win in the 37th, where they were angered with her principal opponent Jenny Oropeza. Oropeza had a very strong pro-labor voting record but had voted for some California state compacts with Indian tribes that possibly would have enabled Indians to keep unions out of Indian reservation casinos.
This election should see a higher turn-out – although still very low -- because several California budget ballot Propositions will also be voted on. Everyone’s confused by the propositions and grouchy with both Gov. Schwarzenegger and the legislature and the propositions are losing badly. On the other hand, Solis’ 32nd CD has even fewer registered voters than the 37th.
The Candidates: There are a lot of candidates running in the jungle primary, but by far the two most well known are member of State Board of Equalization/former Assemblywoman Judy Chu and State Senator Gil Cedillo. They’re really the only candidates with the name recognition and money to have a realistic chance of winning the election. Of course, they’re both Democrats.
The race is shaping up to be an interesting choice between geography and ethnicity. Chu is a decades-long office holder in the district going back to her days as Monterey Park City Council member. Cedillo actually doesn’t represent any significant part of this district at all in the state Senate. That’s the case even though state Senate districts in California are gigantic: there are only 40 state Senators from CA and there are 53 members of the US House, and so Cedillo represents more people in his current job than he would if he were elected to Congress. But California has term limits, and Cedillo is hungry for a new job. So why does Cedillo think he can win? Over 60 percent of the population of the district is Latino, while only 18 percent is Asian. Cedillo hopes that people will vote ethnicity and not for someone who has actually already represented them.
In the ultra-expensive Los Angeles media market – in which this district is entirely contained – the old-fashioned technology of mailers is critical. The LA Times lays this out. The core impact of a mailer, unless you can come up with a scandal, is in the endorsements listed. Many important Latino office holders in the district have endorsed Chu, as has Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and most local unions. On the other side Cedillo also has his share of elected official endorsements including Gloria Molina, the Los Angeles County Supervisor.
[Molina was once spotted purchasing bloomers by a Latina artist friend of mine in Los Angeles. The bloomers were so large and colorful that my friend had wanted them for a Christo-like art installation wrapping around the museum she works for in LA. Somehow she thought that if she approached Molina for an underwear tug-of-war after Molina grabbed them and explained why she wanted the bloomers, her organization’s appropriation for public art might have been slashed substantially.]
There’s no evidence to prove that Cedillo’s people are behind this, but there’s a very suspicious candidacy by someone named BETTY Chu. Betty is a cousin, albeit not a first cousin, by marriage of Judy Chu – and a Republican. Betty’s spending no money and has no chance to win. But she’s a current Monterey Park City Councilor and any votes cast for her likely come straight from Judy Chu’s total.
Judy Chu’s campaign was handed gift-wrapped a recent article in the LA Times outlining in full detail how Cedillo spent $185,000 on food, travel, lavish hotels, etc. on himself & various cronies. See what fun it is to spend your campaign contributions on the high life. There doesn’t seem to have been anything illegal since all the spending came from campaign funds, but one Chu campaign mailer pretty much reprints the LA Times article and lets voters form their own conclusions.
Cedillo has fought back hard with mailers attacking Chu’s record on the State Board of Equalization of issuing tax refunds to corporations that had contributed to her campaigns. The fact that the refunds were routine and that the headlines from newspapers used to illustrate the mailers were taken completely out of context from other articles is almost de rigeur in these types of campaigns.
Cedillo has made a bit of a name for himself in the California State Legislature as the leading advocate of allowing driver’s licenses for California’s vast population of undocumented workers but has overall a more pro-corporate voting record than Chu who has vowed to join the Progressive Caucus if elected and has been endorsed by the California League of Conservation Voters.
Predictions: If the unions do more than endorse and actively flex their turn-out muscle on behalf of Judy Chu the way they did last year for Laura Richardson, she'll be the next member of Congress from California's 32nd district. If the unions yawn, Cedillo could squeak it out. And the next Chu family reunion should be an interesting one.