State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez was elected as Los Angeles’ newest member of Congress on Tuesday, defeating attorney Robert Lee Ahn in a sharply contested battle for the 34th Congressional District.
Gomez will take the seat vacated by Xavier Becerra, who became state attorney general earlier this year, and will represent one of the poorest, most immigrant-heavy districts in the state, where the effects of President Trump’s policies on immigration and healthcare will be acutely felt.
His election continues a decades-old tradition of Democratic Latino representation in the district, which stretches from downtown Los Angeles to Boyle Heights and incorporates Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Koreatown. If Ahn had won, he would have become the second Korean American elected to the House and the first Korean American Democrat.
Shortly before Ahn called to concede, Gomez, 42, thanked hundreds of cheering supporters for their efforts to get him elected and pledged to represent all of his constituents after a hard-fought battle with fellow Democrat Ahn.
“Today, our community said yes to California values, our progressive values,” Gomez said at his election party at his Highland Park campaign headquarters. “All of you here that helped me on this campaign, we are the resistance.”
Initial returns had placed Gomez and Ahn in a dead heat, likely the result of Ahn’s aggressive early vote program that focused on registering and turning out supporters in Koreatown. Data provided by Political Data Inc. showed Korean Americans, who make up just 6% of the district’s voters, made up more than a quarter of votes cast ahead of the election.
But Ahn’s sophisticated targeting and attempts at coalition-building were not enough to overcome Gomez’s vast Democratic and Latino support, which was apparent after the election day vote significantly widened Gomez’s lead.
“The Ahn campaign did a magnificent job in really energizing their base in this election,” said Paul Mitchell, who runs Political Data. “But the fundamentals of this district, I think, are hard for anyone to overcome. … There’s this baked-in advantage for Latino candidates in those poll voters.”
The district, where median household income hovers around $35,000, is majority Latino and had one of the biggest declines in the uninsured population after the passage of Obamacare. Becerra, who held the seat for more than two decades, was regarded as a fierce advocate for immigrants and the poor. He resigned the seat after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to replace now-Sen. Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general.
The result is likely to be a letdown for many of the district’s estimated 17,000 Korean American voters, who responded to Ahn’s call to become more civically engaged following the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots that left them feeling voiceless.
Speaking to supporters late Tuesday night, Ahn said they shouldn’t feel discouraged. “The campaign, it doesn’t end here. This is just beginning for this community,” he said, as a supporter shouted, “All the way to the White House!”
“Just look around you,” he continued. “There’s so much to be hopeful for. There’s so much that we’ve started.”
Although Gomez and Ahn both said they were running to represent all constituents in the district, it was expected to be a low-turnout election, and the campaigns largely targeted their own bases of support.
Ahn spent considerable time and resources registering Korean American voters and sent massive amounts of mail to Asian American voters, while Gomez’s campaign concentrated get-out-the-vote efforts on the Eastside.
With few policy differences between Ahn and Gomez, much of the campaign centered on the candidates’ backgrounds and the approach they would take as part of “the resistance” movement against Trump.
Both are the children of immigrants and talked about their working-class roots. Gomez’s parents are immigrants from Mexico, and his father was in the bracero program for guest workers. His parents and most of his five siblings lived in the U.S. illegally but became citizens after Gomez was born in the U.S. He’s spoken often about the multiple jobs his parents worked to make ends meet, and the time his childhood bout with pneumonia nearly bankrupted his family.
Ahn’s parents emigrated from South Korea in 1974. His parents worked odd jobs, at one point running a hamburger stand, and eventually built a successful real estate business. Aside from working as an attorney, Ahn also served as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Redistricting Commission and the city’s Planning Commission.
As a political unknown, the 41-year-old Ahn always had the bigger challenge: Gomez already represents more than half the voters in the 34th District and received dozens of endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Becerra, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Jerry Brown.
Ahn tried to capitalize on the anti-establishment fervor that has seized both parties, calling Gomez a “professional politician” funded by special interests.
Gomez responded by touting endorsements from progressive groups and pointing to his record of supporting bills expanding paid family leave and backing single-payer healthcare. Those points could have been key to motivating voters in a district where Democrats make up nearly 60% of voters, and where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential primary.
“If I was so establishment, I don’t think Our Revolution, that was founded and is the political arm of Bernie Sanders, would actually endorse me,” Gomez shot back at a recent debate. “This notion of being a corporate Democrat is just false, it’s silly.”
He also cast Ahn, a former Republican, as too centrist and too willing to negotiate with GOP leaders in Congress.
"In case you haven't noticed, we have a numbers problem in Congress," Ahn said at the debate. "Until we're able to take back the House, we're going to have to talk to the other side."
Both candidates said they would battle to protect the Affordable Care Act and fight against deportations that break families apart. Gomez said he would support only comprehensive immigration reform that stops funding for Trump’s proposed border wall and makes permanent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instituted by the Obama administration. Ahn promised he would fight for a “compassionate compromise” on immigration and advocate closing immigrant detention centers.
On Tuesday, there were reports of many precincts without lines, and only several dozen voters before noon at some precincts.
Rick Bolton, 61, said after he voted at an Eastside precinct on Tuesday that he thought the district would be "well-served" by either candidate, but voted for Gomez because he was more familiar with his record. Bolton, a renewable energy executive, felt Gomez’s experience would make him better positioned to become a “national leader,” especially on climate change.
But he also thought it was “exciting” to have another competitive candidate in the race. “It’s great to see L.A. diversify its voter base and its candidates,” he said of Ahn. “We need more of that.”
Huong Nguyen, 34, said she liked Ahn because of his status as a political outsider. “I just wanted to vote against the guy who was backed by the [Democratic] Party,” Nguyen said. Gomez received endorsements from the California Democratic Party and dozens of elected officials in the establishment.
Nguyen, a screenwriter who lives in Koreatown, said she’s skeptical of any one party gaining too much control, and thought it was time for some “moderation and a refresh” in the race. “Anyone who is willing to buck trends and put country above party is who I want.”
In the race for one of the poorest districts in the state, more than 75% of the candidates’ money came from outside the district, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records. Large chunks of that came from ZIP Codes in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Beverly Hills, as Gomez raised funds in political power centers and Ahn dipped into wealthy enclaves for cash.
Overall, Ahn raised about $874,000 since entering the race in mid-January, while Gomez received about $961,000. But Ahn loaned himself an additional $490,000, giving him a major cash advantage.
Ahn and Gomez spent little on TV and radio advertisements, focusing instead on mailers and intense ground efforts to get voters to the polls. The mailers sent by both sides to voters contained increasingly negative messages as election day approached.
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Javier Panzar contributed to this report.
Go to latimes.com/essentialpolitics for continuing updates on the results.
For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.
June 7, 1:09 a.m.: Updated with details from Ahn’s concession speech and the vote count.
10:50 p.m.: Updated with Gomez’s victory.
10:25 p.m.: Updated with the fact that the race was too close to call.
8:25 p.m.: Updated with the first round of mail ballot returns.
8 p.m.: Updated with information about polls being closed
6:35 p.m. This story was updated with more details from the polls.
4:00 p.m.: This story was updated with reports from the polls.
This story was originally published at 5 a.m. June 6.