Assemblywoman Laura Richardson is all but headed to Congress after she finished first Tuesday in the 17-candidate field to replace the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald. Richardson garnered 37.8 percent of the vote to 31.3 percent for state Sen. Jenny Oropeza.
Richardson will face a token Republican in a run off election in two months. The Democratic candidates on Tuesday combined for more than 75 percent of the vote in the Democrat-heavy, Long Beach-area district .
"She's going to Congress for the rest of her life because she convinced five percent of eligible voters to vote for her," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes political races. "That's pathetic."
The race had been widely billed as a battle between African American and Latino candidates in a historically black seat, where Latinos are an ever-growing segment of the population.
But the race also became a proxy for the struggle between organized labor and California's wealthy Indian gambling tribes, as the two traditionally Democratic interest groups flexed their political muscle.
"It's a classic battle," Hoffenblum said. "The Indian tribes are management and labor is labor."
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians spent $457,000 in an independent expenditure campaign to back Oropeza, blanketing the district with mailers. In an election where early results show less than 30,000 people voted, that works out to more than $15 per voter.
Earlier this year, Oropeza voted in favor of the gambling compacts that would allow Morongo and four other tribes to operate thousands of new slot machines. Those compacts have stalled in the Assembly, where Richardson is a member.
While the vote earned Oropeza the support of the Morongo tribe, it appears to have cost her the backing of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
The labor federation, which has opposed the compacts, backed Richardson.
That marked a change for the labor fed, which in 2006 supported Richardson's primary opponent in her bid for Assembly while backing Oropeza in her contested bid for Senate.
Hoffenblum said that labor's support - even if less money was spent - was far more valuable than Morongo's glossy mailers. "Paid advertising doesn't have the impact on low turnout races," he said.
With Richardson's victory, the campaign to replace her in the state Assembly begins.
One possible candidate is Warren Furutani, who spent just shy of $600,000 in his primary loss to Richardson in 2006. The local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, also mentions Carson Councilman Mike Gipson and Carson Mayor Jim Dear as possible candidates.