This week’s race between Warren Furutani and Mike Gipson wasn’t just a race to fill a vacant Assembly seat. It evolved into a battle of liberals versus moderates, business versus labor and warring camps in the Black Caucus and in the fight for the Assembly speakership.
In the end, the big winners, once again, were organized labor, which proved its prowess in low-turnout elections — and Speaker Fabian Núñez, who beat back what some were viewing as an open mini-revolt from within his own caucus.
The election harkened back to an older political era in which Democratic factions fought openly in primary election battles. These Democratic primary battles were proxy wars between speakership candidates. Battles between Los Angeles Assemblyman Howard Berman and San Francisco Assemblyman Leo McCarthy, both Democrats, were legendary, hard-fought and expensive.
The primary battles between liberal and moderate interest groups still goes on, but the open opposition to a sitting speaker is much less common in the current political era.
And some saw the seeds of a mini-revolt against Núñez in the battle between Furutani and Gipson.
“I think you can look at (the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association) coming in with us, and obviously they’re having their issues with the speaker right now,” said Gipson campaign manager Patrick Furey. “There were a lot of different groups out there trying to make a statement about the speaker.”
The race also exposed rifts between Black Caucus chairman Merv Dymally, D-Compton, and Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, who is in line to succeed Dymally as caucus chairman. Dymally originally joined the rest of the Black Caucus in endorsing Gipson, and even wrote Gipson’s campaign a check. But he pulled his support after the caucus effectively dumped Dymally, electing Ridley-Thomas as chairman.
Ridley-Thomas helped engineer a Dymally hit in the course of campaigning for Gipson. A glossy piece distributed at black churches in the area advertised “the Dymally double-cross,” focusing on Dymally’s reversal on both Gipson and Barack Obama.
Just as he had with Gipson, Dymally had originally endorsed Obama but later announced his support for Hillary Clinton.
“We were very disappointed that the Assemblyman pulled his endorsement,” said Furey. “But I was personally also disappointed when he pulled his endorsement of Barack Obama.”
Gipson was backed by a number of senators, including Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, as well as the rest of the legislative Black Caucus. But he also received a smattering of support from sitting Assembly members, even though their speaker was backing Furutani.
Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, who like Gipson has a background in the Los Angeles teachers union, supported Gipson, and freshman Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Los Angeles, wrote Gipson a $2,000 check in the closing days of the campaign.
Furutani received money from members of the Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus, as well as from Assemblymembers Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angeles, and Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles.
Feuer, DeLeon and Fuentes all have leadership ambitions. Was the special election a proxy war for potential leadership candidates in the event that Núñez’s term is not extended?
Perhaps, but in the short term, it is a victory for the current speaker. Though Furutani did not break the 50 percent vote threshold, postponing his formal election until February, his arrival in Sacramento will mean another Núñez loyalist. That could strengthen Núñez’s hand in his effort to retain power next year, or at least give Núñez a voice in whom his successor may be.
Gipson received a boost from an independent expenditure committee called Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, funded by tobacco companies, energy companies and builders. And though Gipson himself has a union background — he is an area organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles — his most strident opposition came from the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, which adopted Furutani as one of its own.
“The contrast between the two groups of supporters was greater than the contrast between the candidates,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book.
But Hoffenblum said he was not particularly surprised by Furutani’s victory.
“My experience is, that in these low-turnout races, the labor candidate wins more often than not wins. I know what type of operation they have. It’s phenomenal. When you’re dealing with 10 percent voter turnout, the paid advertising has less of an impact on the outcome. Labor knows how to identify their voters, let them know who the labor candidate is, and get voters to the polls.”
This was certainly true in the last special election in the area between Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, and then-Assemblywoman Laura Richardson, D-Long Beach. Richardson had been opposed by labor when she defeated Furutani for the Assembly seat in 2006. Oropeza, by contrast, was elected to the Senate in a contested primary with strong labor support.
But that was before the Big Four compacts. Oropeza backed new gaming deals for four of the state’s largest Indian tribes when they came up for a vote in the state Senate. The compacts were vehemently opposed by labor groups.
Richardson, who ironically had long been a supporter of tribal gaming, abstained on the compact votes, and labor switched sides in the Congressional race, throwing its support behind Richardson and abandoning Oropeza.
Richardson won that race with 37 percent of the vote, compared with 31 for Oropeza.