With so much focus on who's raising the most money, who's got the big-name endorsements and who's got labor or business or whatever special interests' backing, it's easy to overlook the simple fact that elections are decided by individual voters. Money, political connections and even incumbency won't matter if voters don't recognize or choose a candidate's name when they cast their ballots.
Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra discovered this the hard way. The incumbent from the San Fernando Valley has lost his 39th District seat to Patty Lopez, a first-time candidate whose campaign was backed by volunteers and funded with tamale sales. The race was stunningly close; it took the Los Angeles County registrar nearly three weeks to count ballots and declare a winner. The last tally put Lopez ahead by 467 votes out of about 45,000 ballots cast. Bocanegra conceded Monday rather than seek a recount.
The race shocked the political establishment. Bocanegra was seen as a rising star in Sacramento. He successfully carried legislation that expanded and overhauled the film tax credit program. He was pushing common-sense Proposition 13 reforms and was eyeing the speaker's job in 2016. And he seemed politically secure: Bocanegra captured 63% of the vote to Lopez's 24% in the June primary. He was so confident in his reelection that he spent the weekend before the election campaigning outside his district for other state candidates, according to Melanie Mason of The Times. And though he spent $870,000 during the 2014 election, more than 40% of his expenditures went toward other Democratic candidates and party committees.
Meanwhile, Lopez spent six months knocking on doors in the district, which includes the communities of Pacoima, Sylmar and San Fernando, and she had support from a network of local, grass-roots activists. She may also have benefited from low turnout, or another fluke — her name appeared before Bocanegra's on the ballot, which, as with the other races on that page, made it appear that she was the Democrat and Bocanegra was the Republican, when in fact they were both Democrats. Nevertheless, if Bocanegra had greater name recognition and a stronger campaign presence in the community, he probably could have overcome those challenges.
Bocanegra's loss should be a reminder to all elected officials. A good legislator should be a statesman who tries to solve the big problems of California, but all the good intentions and political connections in the world won't matter if you have lost touch with the people you represent.