After weeks of vote tallying, political neophyte Patty Lopez has unseated incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, a fellow Democrat, in an upset that has sent shock waves beyond their San Fernando Valley district.
Lopez, a relative unknown, was universally expected to lose, especially since her competition was an ascendant legislative leader backed by a powerful Valley political faction.
Bocanegra, a first-term lawmaker who harbored ambitions to be the next Assembly speaker, was the top vote-getter in the primary by a nearly 40-point margin.
But he trailed in early vote returns election night, shocking Sacramento's political establishment. After the final vote count Monday, he was behind by 467 votes out of about 45,000 ballots cast. In a statement, he conceded that his opponent won "by the narrowest of margins" and said he would not pursue a "costly and time-consuming" recount.
"In every election cycle, there's always one stunner," said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "This was the stunner."
Count Lopez among the surprised.
"For me, it was more about challenging the system to listen to us," Lopez, 46, said in an interview. She had grown frustrated, she said, with threats of school closures and cutbacks.
Born in Mexico, Lopez and her family moved to Pacoima when she was 10. She moved to nearby San Fernando when she married Juan Lopez, with whom she has four daughters.
Education has been her focus, both as a paid community representative for the North Valley Occupational Center-Aviation Center in Van Nuys and as a parent volunteer.
Cindy Montañez, a former state assemblywoman and current L.A. City Council hopeful, said she knew Lopez as a "very strong advocate against the elimination of adult-education programs." That activism led to a wide grass-roots network, which Montañez said made Lopez a "very serious candidate."
Nevertheless, her campaign was a bare-bones operation, funded partially by selling tamales and pozole, a hominy-based soup. Edwin Ramirez, a friend of Lopez's for 20 years, said the operation was powered solely by volunteers.
"This is a candidate that had no political endorsements. She had no credibility, no recognition — she didn't have any funding," Ramirez said.
The state ethics agency fined Lopez $400 last summer for failing to file campaign finance reports. She has since submitted sparsely detailed filings to the county registrar, some past the deadline.
"I made a few mistakes, and I paid the price for that," Lopez said, adding that the friend serving as her campaign treasurer had no experience dealing with filing requirements. "Most of the people on my team, we're not in the political arena."
After Lopez emerged as a potential winner, she received counsel from former L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon.
"I'm trying to help her with the information I have about how to serve the community," Alarcon said. "The main issue here is that Raul Bocanegra did not take care of the district the way the voters wanted him to. Patty doesn't want to make the same mistake."
The feud between Alarcon and Bocanegra — and their respective allies — is far-reaching. Bocanegra is part of a political lineage that includes U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) and Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla. They often clashed with Alarcon and his associates.
In 2012, Alarcon and Bocanegra vied for the same Assembly seat, won by Bocanegra. Last summer, Alarcon was convicted of felony perjury and voter fraud after a jury found that he lied about his residency to represent the council's 7th District. Bocanegra, who once worked for Alarcon, testified against him at the trial.
Bocanegra's allies dispute the contention that he was distant from his constituents. Betty Ley, a Mission Hills community activist, said Bocanegra was "very dedicated." She gave him particular credit for working to fix guardrails and clean up areas around the district's freeways.
In Sacramento, the 43-year-old former legislative staffer quickly established himself as an influential lawmaker. A leader in extending the film tax credit to $330 million annually over five years, Bocanegra had leadership aspirations, mounting an unsuccessful bid for speaker earlier this year. The moderate Democrat was widely seen as laying groundwork for another run to replace current Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), whose term ends in 2016 because of term limits.
Bocanegra raised more than $1 million for the 2014 campaign and spent more than $870,000. More than 40% of his spending went toward contributions for Democratic candidates and party committees. The weekend before the election, he was on a bus tour with Atkins and other Democrats aimed at boosting voter turnout in swing districts.
A modest campaign of his own may have been enough to fend off Lopez's challenge, analysts say.
They also pointed to other possible factors in the upset: Protest votes against the status quo by conservative voters who had no Republican to choose in the race, or Lopez's name appearing first on the ballot, which may have confused some voters thinking she was the sole Democrat in the race.
Lopez's ballot designation — "educational community representative" — may also have been more appealing than Bocanegra's designation as "Assemblymember," particularly with voters who had low approval of incumbents.
Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc., said the lesson that seemingly safe seats could be in play when Democrats or Republicans face opponents from their own party could reverberate into future battles.
"Challengers will be very emboldened," Mitchell said. "Incumbents will be very afraid."