Who's Going To Washington?
By Gene Maddeus
The two front-runners in the race for the open 37th Congressional District seat made nice in a televised debate Friday, after state Sen. Jenny Oropeza and Assemblywoman Laura Richardson of Long Beach got into an ugly dispute with possible racial overtones at a candidates forum in Compton the previous night.
Oropeza and Richardson, both Democrats, exchanged private words during the closing statement of another candidate in Thursday night's forum. The barbs escalated quickly as bystanders became involved, prompting security guards to enter the room to restore order.
The precise details of the conflict remained murky Friday, but witnesses said the trouble began when Richardson made an overt racial appeal to the predominantly black audience in her closing remarks.
"No one can take our seat from us without us fighting every bit of the way for it," Richardson said, appealing to the desire to keep the congressional district in African-American hands.
When Richardson sat down, Oropeza made a remark to her that could not be heard by the audience. L.J. "Bishop" Guillory, a Republican candidate seated to Richardson's immediate left, said he heard Oropeza say "You must be really ashamed of your mother and
she must be ashamed of you."
Richardson's mother is white and her father is black. Oropeza would later deny Guillory's version of the story.
Richardson grew visibly agitated and, at one point, asked the moderator to restore order.
When the debate was over, several candidates were milling around and talking when Guillory shouted, "Can we stop this here? She's talking about her mother!"
Oropeza rushed over to confront Guillory and denied his accusation. Compton Councilman Isadore Hall, a Richardson supporter, then inserted himself between the two and told Oropeza, "Not in my city, Senator, not in my city."
Oropeza and Richardson refused to hold hands in the group picture. Oropeza left quickly afterward, and declined to comment on the incident. Richardson, too, left without giving her version of events.
On Friday, campaign staffers from both sides offered their own versions of what had happened the night before.
Richardson's campaign consultant said she had used the term, "our community," not "us," and that she was referring to residents of all backgrounds. The consultant, John Shallman, said Richardson was addressing an audience that included whites, Latinos and Filipinos and would not have singled out one race.
He called Oropeza's response "very offensive, very personal and deeply disrespectful."
Oropeza's campaign, though, said Richardson's closing remarks were an appeal to the black community and went against her own promises not to bring race into the debate. Campaign consultant Parke Skelton said he did not know exactly what Oropeza said to Richardson afterward.
"She leaned over and let Laura know that she felt Laura was going back on her word," Skelton said.
It was an unpleasant ending to what had been a lively and informative debate. Richardson appeared poised and confident early. When asked about the Iraq war, she drew applause for demanding that National Guard troops be brought home so they wouldn't "take a week to get to New Orleans."
Oropeza, by contrast, stumbled in her answer when she advocated a plan for getting out of Iraq but conceded that "I do not know what the plan is."
Valerie McDonald, who is running to succeed her late mother, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, said she supports the "Obama plan" to withdraw by March 2008.
The debate was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Transit Center, and was sponsored by an association of black pastors. The clergy were particularly interested to hear all the candidates' views on gay marriage and abortion.
Richardson was forced to explain her vote two days prior in support of gay marriage, which was not a popular position among many in the room.
Richardson argued that she believed in free choice, including the choice of gay people to marry but also the choice of ministers not to recognize gay relationships or perform gay weddings.
Oropeza, long a supporter of gay marriage, also defended the right of churches right not to acknowledge gay unions, while McDonald stated her opposition to same-sex marriage.
In all, 13 candidates appeared at the forum. One of the lesser known contenders to make a strong showing was Daniel Abraham Brezenoff, a social worker and Green Party candidate who made arguments against the war and in favor of solar energy and gay marriage. He also scored one of the biggest punchlines of the night: "I have the best preparation you could want for going to Congress. I work in a psychiatric hospital."
At Friday's debate, the air between Oropeza and Richardson was cool, but civil. Oropeza extended a hand while complimenting Richardson's answer to a question posed by moderators in a debate filmed at Charter Communications Studios, with no audience. The women clasped hands in front of candidate Signal Hill Councilman Edward Wilson, who sat between them.
Charter, the Long Beach Post and the L.B. Democratic Club hosted the first of two Democratic candidate forums in its Dominguez Junction building.
Oropeza, Richardson and Wilson were selected to participate in the first forum because they currently serve in public office, said Robert Garcia, co-publisher of the Long Beach Post and co-moderator with LBDC president James Johnson.
Questions were submitted by Long Beach Post readers and LBDC members. Each of the three was also allowed to pose a question to the candidate of their choice.
No references were made to Oropeza and Richardson's exchange Thursday.
Friday's debate, broadcast live on Channel 3, will be broadcast six more times beginning Monday. On Wednesday, subscribers can use the video-on-demand feature to watch it at their leisure. The Long Beach Post will allow readers a 24-hour visitor access to the coverage on its site, http://lbpost.com.
Another debate, Thursday at 6:30 p.m., will be held at Cabrillo High School's auditorium. The public is invited to attend the event.
Wilson made a solid impression at Friday's debate. "The difference between me and lots of the candidates is my business background," said Wilson. "I've created budgets for businesses to make them successful."
Wilson, who also serves in the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, said communication between the private sector and goverment could be improved. Improving the infrastructure of the ports is possible, but giving and backing incentives that encourage private citizens and businesses to be and think green.
Seventeen candidates are on the ballot in a special election June 26 to fill the remainder of the two-year term of the late Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died April 22 of cancer.
Heavily Democratic, the 37th serves almost all of Long Beach, Carson, Compton and Signal Hill, and portions of Los Angeles. Since Millender-McDonald's death, the district office has been supervised by the clerk of the House of Representatives.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, an Aug. 21 election between the top vote-getters from each political party will decide the winner.