A political novice who scored big upset finds herself on the defensive

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez won her seat in San Fernando in a stunning upset over an established incumbent

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez won her seat in San Fernando last fall in a stunning upset over an established incumbent and fellow Democrat. She may find that improbable victory the easiest part of her fledgling political career.

Five months after the election, detractors in her northeast San Fernando Valley district are waging a campaign against her, pressuring her to resign. Meanwhile, Lopez, a political novice, has chafed against the practices at the Capitol and has strained relationships with those working to help her.

Calling her critics bullies, Lopez rejects the calls to step down.

"The people put me in this place," she said.

By 466 votes last November, Lopez beat one-term Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, who harbored ambitions to be Assembly speaker. His campaign was well-funded, and he was allied with a powerful political faction in the Valley that includes US. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-San Fernando) and Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Lopez had no elective experience; much of her work as an education advocate was as a volunteer. She earned an income from providing state-paid in-home care for her ailing mother.

Lopez spent just $25,000 on a bare-bones campaign, and most of the required filings detailing her campaign contributions were incomplete. She was fined $400 by the state for failing to submit required reports.

Analysts offered several theories to explain her surprise win, including a complacent campaign by Bocanegra, the front-runner, and a ballot layout that may have confused some voters.

When she arrived in Sacramento, Assembly Democrats aided her transition to lawmaking, including helping her hire staff. Since then, Lopez has parted ways with two chiefs of staff, both of whom had substantial Capitol experience, saying they were not plugged into her district.

Edwin Ramirez, a Pacoima resident and friend of Lopez, said it's hard for the rookie legislator to trust people who have been fixtures in Sacramento and may have alliances with Bocanegra.

"She doesn't really know who's making her fall down or helping her succeed," Ramirez said.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said Lopez is "part of the team," receiving "the support we provide to any other member."

Lopez said she hoped her Democratic colleagues were fully behind her but sounded less than sure.

"My only hope is if they don't want to respect Patty, they will respect the people" who voted for her, she said.

Privately, some Democrats say Lopez's distrust of the establishment is hindering her effectiveness in the Capitol, where there are rules and restrictions on everything — even the number of fliers a lawmaker can print to advertise events.

To succeed, said Gale Kaufman, a veteran Democratic strategist, "Assembly member Lopez is going to have to learn very quickly what the world is up here."

"She put her name on the ballot, she ran, she's now an Assembly member. It's her responsibility to understand what that means," said Kaufman, who was a top aide to Willie Brown, a powerful speaker from 1980 to 1995.

Bocanegra is already gunning for a rematch. He formed a committee for a 2016 campaign last December, just weeks after his loss.

"I've had a lot of encouragement from people to run again for 2016," Bocanegra said. "I've still got that fire in the belly."

But some of Lopez's critics don't want to wait until the next election to oust her. Activists in the district launched a "Stop Patty Lopez" website and have floated the possibility of a recall effort.

The materials mainly take issue with Lopez's political affiliations; she has several close associates who are Republican activists, prompting questions of how loyal a Democrat she is. They have also made pointed reference to Lopez's heavily accented English, a charged dig in a district that has many Latino immigrants, such as Lopez herself.

Bocanegra has disavowed such tactics, including the recall threat.

"I've made it clear that I don't support those efforts," Bocanegra said. "If they're doing it for me, on my behalf, I'd like for them to stop."

One of Lopez's most vocal opponents has been Rosemary Jenkins, a Democratic activist from Granada Hills. Jenkins is a Bocanegra ally, but she said the resignation campaign "has nothing to do with Raul." Rather, she said, it's about doing the necessary vetting of a political official.

"Nobody knew anything about her," said Jenkins. "If they had known her leanings, her associations, they never would've voted for her."

Jenkins and two other constituents have filed voluminous complaints with the state's political ethics watchdog, alleging that the assemblywoman committed further campaign finance violations and failed to properly disclose her income and assets.

Copies of the complaints, along with signed petitions calling for her resignation, were sent to the Capitol offices of Democratic Assembly members last week.

Meanwhile, Lopez is receiving mixed reviews from constituents.

Ann Job, president of the Sylmar Neighborhood Council, voted for Lopez on a lark. "I saw her name there and thought, 'Oh, what the hell,'" she said.

But she's been impressed with Lopez's accessibility. "She's definitely on the ground, going places and talking to people," Job said.

Reuben Garcia, a supervisor at Target in Pacoima, said he wanted Lopez to succeed but that the lawmaker and her staff have struggled to answer basic questions at community meetings.

Lopez has to "get with it soon," Garcia said, "because the excuse of 'we're new to office' is a little played out already."

melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

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