The 69th state Assembly district—a Latino-majority area encompassing all of Santa Ana and parts of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Orange—should logically belong to Claudia Alvarez. The Santa Ana councilwoman seems like the ideal candidate for Latino leaders and voters to rally around: demure, charming, and did we mention she's a Latina?

Alvarez, who's currently battling former assemblyman and Clinton administration drug-war architect Tom Umberg for the 69th's Democratic nomination in the March 2 primary, is more than that; she's the immigrant success story fulfilled. She was born in Mexico City but has resided in Santa Ana since her family migrated to the United States in the late 1970s. A graduate of local schools save for a 1994 juris doctorate from Loyola Law School, Alvarez currently works as an Orange County deputy district attorney. When she was elected to Santa Ana's City Council in 2000, she became the city's first Latina council member.

So why are such local Latino bigwigs as Los Amigos chairman Amin David, League of United Latin American Citizens president Zeke Hernandez, and ex-Santa Ana school board members Nativo Lopez and Nadia María Davis urging Latinos to vote against the sole Latina in the race?

"[My Latino opponents] are upset that, as a Latina, I didn't support Nativo in last year's recall," Alvarez insists. "They're all upset that many of my friends are white and not racist. And they're just upset at the fact that I ran for a seat and won—not like the rest of them." It may be a little more than that, actually. There's a sense among the old-school Dems that Alvarez is so pro-business, so middle-of-the-road, so Democratic Leadership Council, well . . . the term "Loretta-lite" has been known to fall from between sneering lips.

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Such fighting words—on both sides—fulfill a prediction in the February issue of California Journal that the Umberg/Alvarez duel will be a "potentially ugly race" and "the hottest Assembly primary of 2004." The same issue also classified the Alvarez-Umberg showdown as a duel between "heavyweight special interests slug[ging] it out using independent expenditures," a prediction both candidates are busy fulfilling. Umberg counts more than 125 lawyers or law firms as monetary contributors compared to Alvarez's 30-some, and Alvarez has accepted contributions from various out-of-county PACs and corporations.

Voters in the 69th, then, get to decide between the corporate lawyer and the corporate sweetheart. In the former corner: Umberg. Since his last stint as Assembly member from 1990 to 1994, Umberg has spent most of his time shilling for causes as varied as multinationals seeking business in Colombia and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Umberg surprised many political observers when he announced his candidacy near the filing deadline. Many Latino Democrats have privately expressed anger that Umberg—a Caucasian—would dare run in the one district a Latino candidate has the best chance of winning. "Umberg belongs to the old guard," says one Latino Democratic operative. "His candidacy was good—10 years ago. But the demographics changed. It's a Latino district now."

Nevertheless, the county Latino establishment has supported Umberg in favor of Alvarez. Critics accuse Alvarez of the usual vendida jeremiads—that she doesn't pay enough attention to "the community"; that she's too cozy with Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, another Latino-establishment scoundrel. But what stings local Alvarez opponents the most, according to Alvarez anyway, was her vocal support for Lopez's recall last year, a stance that Alvarez remains unrepentant about.

Lopez, at least, remains furious. On Jan. 15, Lopez blast-faxed a letter up and down California's Democratic galaxy casting Alvarez as a modern-day Pinkerton for accepting a $1,000 contribution from Safeway, scrawling, "[W]e are very familiar with Alvarez's pro-business and anti-labor posture." A day earlier, South County Labor chairman Raymond Cordova launched a similar scud at Claudia. In a letter addressed to California state Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Núñez—a former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leader who helped organized the famed Justice for Janitors Los Angeles-area strikes of the mid-1990s—and carbon-copied to labor leaders across the state, Cordova urged Núñez to reconsider his endorsement of Alvarez. Cordova cited the Safeway check and a Dec. 5 council vote Alvarez cast regarding city contracts with janitors that, Cordova claims, cost the local SEIU chapter nearly 20 jobs.

Whether or not you buy Alvarez's explanation about the check—that a staffer "inadvertently deposited" the $1,000 and that she returned the money upon finding out—what is clear is that Lopez and Cordova's smear job is not working. Núñez not only refused to withdraw his endorsement of Alvarez, but he also plans to host fund-raisers for her in Santa Ana later this month and has even sent down one of his staffers to personally oversee Alvarez's campaign.

And the SEIU chapter that Cordova attempted to paint as victims continues to support Alvarez; they even wrote a letter to Núñez praising Alvarez, stating, "[She] has demonstrated her leadership skills by working cooperatively with the union by supporting us in our local issues. And she has further pledged to continue to support us in these difficult times!"

In a way, Lopez and Co. are serving as the ground soldiers for California's Democratic establishment—every statewide-elected Democratic official, from Attorney General Bill Lockyer (Davis' husband) to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, supports Umberg. In a way, though, Orange County Latino Democrats are onto something. An Alvarez victory wouldn't signify the latest young Latino progressive to shake up the Capitol in the manner of a Gil Cedillo or Antonio Villaraigosa—you'll just see Loretta-lite.

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