The hot issue of Tuesday's special runoff election for an open House seat in Los Angeles isn't the economy, immigration or Medicaid — it's gangs, thanks to what may be the most jaw-dropping political attack ad ever run.
The video, "Give Me Your Cash, B****," features two "rappers" accusing Democratic candidate Janice Hahn of coddling gang members during her 10 years on the Los Angeles City Council. The highlight is Mrs. Hahn's red-eyed, demonic face imposed on a pole-dancer's body as the rappers, pretending to be gang members, pull dollar bills out of her shorts.
The video, produced by an independent group not affiliated with the local Republican campaign, has been denounced as racist, sexist and just plain vile, but it may help explain why some doubt remains as to the outcome of Tuesday's race to succeed former Rep. Jane Harman. Mrs. Harman, a Democrat, resigned from Congress in February to become the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The Democratic candidate ordinarily would be considered a shoo-in to win the coastal Los Angeles County district, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 45 percent to 28 percent and Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the 2008 presidential election by some 30 percentage points. Instead, Mrs. Hahn is locked in a tighter-than-expected race with Republican businessman Craig Huey.
A political newcomer, Mr. Huey stunned onlookers by placing second out of 16 candidates in the May 17 open primary in the 36th Congressional District, edging California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat, by 206 votes. The top two vote-getters in the so-called "jungle primary" face each other Tuesday to serve out the remainder of Mrs. Harman's term.
Mrs. Hahn, 59, who finished first in the primary, is well-known to Los Angeles voters as a result of her decade on the council, as well as her extensive family connections. Her father, Kenneth Hahn, was a longtime county supervisor, and her brother, James Hahn, served as mayor.
But Mr. Huey, 60, has proved to be a surprisingly strong challenger. His message of limited government and job creation has earned him tea party support, while his ability to fund his own campaign — he has spent $695,000 of his own money — has enabled him to keep pace with the better-connected Mrs. Hahn.
But it's the gang video that put the race on the map. Produced by conservative attack-ad specialist Ladd Ehlinger Jr. for RightTurn USA, the video quickly went viral on YouTube and just as quickly became the focus of attention on the campaign trail.
"The big issue is gangs, and that's to Huey's advantage, obviously," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
A report by Fox affiliate KTTV-TV in Los Angeles, on which the video was based, contended that Mrs. Hahn had helped a gang member get out of jail and used city funds to pay gang members to act as go-betweens in negotiations with the city.
The Hahn campaign has denied that the candidate, who was involved in gang-intervention efforts during her years on the council, ever paid gang members or intervened on their behalf with law enforcement.
"No personal funds from my office went to pay gang-intervention workers," Mrs. Hahn said during a candidates debate Thursday with talk-radio host Larry Mantle on KPCC-FM in Los Angeles.
She said she made a call on behalf of a distraught gang member's wife to find out why he had been arrested, but that was the extent of her involvement. "Council members don't get people out of jail," Mrs. Hahn said.
Mr. Huey has denounced the ad as "racist, sexist and bigoted," and insists his campaign has nothing to do with it. In fact, he said, the video has helped Mrs. Hahn by stirring up outrage among her supporters.
"If it had not been for Janice Hahn using it as a fundraising tool, lying that I had put it out, telling people to watch it and donate for it, people wouldn't have viewed it," Mr. Huey said during the debate. "She drove hundreds of thousands of people to watch it nationwide."
Despite the nationwide interest, getting voters to the polls may be the key challenge in the off-year election. Mr. Huey is counting on the commitment of tea party activists, while Mrs. Hahn is expected to benefit from union get-out-the-vote efforts.
Polling for the race has been sparse, but the left-leaning Public Policy Polling released an election-eve survey giving Mrs. Hahn a 52 percent to 44 percent lead with 4 percent undecided.
That is outside the poll's margin of error, but Mr. Huey already has surprised observers by making it to the runoff. The Democrat's eight-point lead also is far below the 25-point margin Mrs. Harman ran up in her last election, and few consider Tuesday's result a foregone conclusion.
"The whole thing is going to depend on turnout," Mr. Stern said. "Republicans will win special elections that they ordinarily wouldn't win because of turnout. Now, obviously, if both sides get out their base, then she wins, because Democrats have so many more voters."
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