In January, when Xavier Becerra stepped down from the Los Angeles congressional district he'd represented for more than two decades to become California's attorney general, two dozen people stepped up to replace him.
The group running in the special election was extraordinarily diverse, if you ignore the fact that it was composed almost entirely of Democrats — unsurprising for a district that backed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in June. The vast majority of the candidates vying to represent California's 34th Congressional District, which stretches from Pico-Union to Eagle Rock, were Latino, Asian or African American, and more than half were women. Also noteworthy: More than a few of the candidates were solidly qualified.
Given the quality of the contenders, it was no surprise that two smart Democrats advanced from the April 4 special election to the runoff on June 6. But only one of them is up to the job of serving in Congress during this uniquely challenging time for California Democrats, and that is Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Eagle Rock).
Gomez has virtually the entire Democratic establishment behind him, with support from big names such as Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
But his resume shows that Gomez doesn't just have establishment backing; he also has substance. A state legislator since 2012, he has a solid resume and progressive track record. Among other things, he pushed bills in Sacramento to expand paid family leave benefits, increase transparency in campaign donations and create a single-payer healthcare system in California. Before running for office, he held a number of government-related jobs, including serving as political director for the United Nurses Assns. of California and as an aide to then-Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) and then-L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer.
Gomez was among the handful of candidates in the first round who stood out because they had the right skills, clear policy platforms and significant experience. We were also impressed with his wonky understanding of the legislative process. Ultimately, however, we endorsed Maria Cabildo, a longtime community activist, affordable housing developer and former city planning commissioner. But Cabildo came in third in that race, after attorney Robert Lee Ahn.
Between Gomez and Ahn it's no contest, though Ahn certainly has his virtues. One of them is his experience on the city redistricting commission and later on the city Planning Commission. He's thoughtful and intelligent, and people who have worked with him say he's good at bringing opposing factions together. And having a Korean American in Congress at a moment when tensions are so high with North Korea could be a good thing.
His deficits as a candidate, however, outweigh those pluses. His positions on big issues facing Congress — healthcare, immigration, how to deal with the Trump administration — are for the most part general and vague, indicating a lack of knowledge or an unwillingness to commit. In the rare cases in which he offers details, his positions can sound more Republican than Democratic, such as his support for allowing people to buy insurance across state lines as a way to reduce premiums (an idea, by the way, which wouldn't work as advertised). That may have something to do with the fact that, up until 2012, Ahn was a Republican. Ahn explains that his views have always been "progressive," but his parents were Republicans so he became one too. It was only after getting involved in local politics that he said he realized the GOP affiliation carried a stigma and didn't really match his beliefs.
Ahn's main pitch for why he is the better candidate is that he's a native-born Angeleno. It's not clear why that matters, especially since Gomez was raised in nearby Riverside and spent much of his adult life working in Los Angeles. It certainly seems relevant that Gomez's life experiences are similar to those of many who live in this district — he grew up in a working-class immigrant family, worked for low-wage service jobs and attended community college as a way into university.
Gomez would be both a solid representative for the district and a strong addition to the state's Democratic caucus. Voters should send him to Washington on June 6.