HAT TIP: Long Beach Press Telegram By Gene Maddaus
As soon as Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald is laid to rest today, the race to succeed her in Congress will begin in earnest.
State Assemblywoman Laura Richardson is expected to formally jump into the race this afternoon, while state Sen. Jenny Oropeza plans to make her announcement Wednesday. Both are Democrats.
Though Oropeza is considered by many to be the favorite, she is likely to face strong opposition from black leaders who are intent on holding on to an African-American seat in Congress.
“Without a doubt, the powers that be will make an effort to maintain that seat as an African-American seat,” said Gardena City Councilman Steve Bradford. “There’s plenty of viable African-Americans who can step in and fill that seat.”
Millender-McDonald was one of four black members of California’s congressional delegation. When she was elected 11 years ago, her district was 33.6 percent black. Since then, the black population has fallen sharply, to 22.7 percent today.
The district includes Compton, Carson, most of Long Beach and parts of Los Angeles. Nearly half the population – 47.6 percent – is Latino.
“I don’t think the 37th is going to be an African-American district for much longer,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a politics professor at USC. “I think it’s going to be Latino.”
Still, the demographic advantage does not guarantee the seat to a Latino candidate. Latinos make up a smaller percentage of the electorate than of the general population. But it does present a challenge to black candidates.
At the California Democratic Party Convention in San Diego over the weekend, state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) said he would meet potential candidates either Friday or Saturday in an effort to narrow the field.
“We’re going to see if we can come up with a consensus,” said Dymally, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. “Several candidates have indicated an interest. They all can’t win.”
Aside from Richardson, the potential black candidates who have been mentioned most frequently are Compton Councilman Isadore Hall and Millender-McDonald’s daughter, Valerie McDonald.
At the convention, Hall said he expected to make a decision within a week.
“I think that (the 37th District) being an African-American seat is very important,” Hall said. “We don’t want to lose a member on that caucus.”
Hall also said that McDonald, who has worked on her mother’s AIDS walks for many years, could be a formidable candidate.
Carson Councilman Mike Gipson, who is not running for the seat, said, “We just want someone we can go to, like we’ve had in the past.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set a June 26 primary election. The top Democrat in the field – who could get only a fraction of the total vote – will advance to the general election on Aug. 21 and will almost certainly win, given the overwhelmingly Democratic registration in the district.
In addition to Oropeza, at least one other Latino candidate, Long Beach 7th District Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga, is considering a run.
Limiting the number of black candidates in the race would avoid splitting the black vote. In the interviews he will conduct later this week, Dymally said he would be looking for candidates with strong financial support and a good organization around them.
Dymally said there is a danger in using race as a factor in endorsements, but others said the purpose of the meetings is to help elect a black candidate.
“I think it is a priority for the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the state Legislative Black Caucus,” Gipson said. “There’s going to be a strong, concerted effort to ensure that this seat remains an African-American seat.”
The 37th District is not alone in losing black voters. Rep. Maxine Waters’ adjacent 35th Congressional District is more than half Latino, with the black population dropping below 30 percent. Rep. Diane Watson’s 33rd District is more evenly mixed, but is also less than 30 percent black.
Some expect that when the boundaries are redrawn in 2011, a segment of black voters in Millender-McDonald’s district will be transferred to Waters’ district to shore up her base. So even if a black candidate wins the seat this year, he or she could face a tough primary challenge from a Latino at some point in the next decade.
“They’re going to be losing a seat under any circumstance,” Jeffe said. “It’s a mirror of reality. It does decrease the black representation, but the black percentage of the population isn’t growing either.”