One of these two Democrats will be L.A.'s next member of Congress. Here's what you need to know

Yes, Los Angeles already had a congressional election this year, and yes, it’s about to have another. With a super-crowded field competing in the April primary for the 34th Congressional District in central L.A., we’re now down to just two candidates.

As the sprint to the finish line gets underway, here’s what you need to know:

The contenders

In the primary election, voters whittled down a field of 24 candidates to the top two vote-getters: Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, 42; and former L.A. city planning commissioner Robert Lee Ahn, 41. Both are Democrats.

Neither of them received anywhere near 50% of votes in the last round, so they have to face each other in a runoff election.

When is the election?

The runoff is set for June 6.

The schedule calls for sample ballots to mailed out starting April 27, and mail ballots to be sent starting May 8.

How did we get here?

It all started when Xavier Becerra stepped down from his House seat to become California’s attorney general. (He was replacing Kamala Harris, who was elected to the Senate). That triggered a special election to replace him in the 34th District, which stretches from downtown and Koreatown to Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Boyle Heights.

In the April 4 primary, the vast majority of the 24 candidates running didn't even get more than 10% of the votes.

Ahn and Gomez pulled significantly ahead of the pack in early returns. Ultimately, Gomez was the top vote-getter with 25% of the vote, but Ahn was just behind at 22%. Only about 42,000 people, or 14% of registered voters, cast ballots in a district that represents more than 735,000 people.

Neither Ahn nor Gomez received more than 11,000 votes each.

Ahn and Gomez have pretty different backgrounds

Ahn was born and raised in Los Angeles and his parents, immigrants from Korea, worked long hours to support the family. As a result, Ahn says, he and his sister spent most of their youth with their grandparents.

He graduated from Harvard-Westlake School and attended Emory University. He later earned a law degree from USC and has worked as an attorney and in his family’s real estate business. He was appointed to the L.A. City Planning Commission by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013 and resigned earlier this year.

Gomez’s parents are immigrants from Mexico and his father was a bracero, or guest worker. They and most of his five siblings were undocumented, but became citizens after Gomez was born in the U.S. He often talks about how his parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Gomez grew up in Riverside and attended community college before transferring to UCLA. He later earned a master’s degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before running for the Assembly, Gomez worked for the United Nurses Assns. of California.

Their bases of support are also pretty varied

Gomez, widely regarded as the establishment choice in the election, has racked up dozens of endorsements from Democratic Party elected officials, including Becerra and Garcetti. He also has the backing of the California Democratic Party and at least eight of his primary opponents, all Democrats.

As a former union organizer, Gomez has also consolidated support from many of the major L.A. labor unions, which could be key if they decide to contribute manpower or major funds to his race against Ahn.

He had strongholds of voters in the northeast L.A. neighborhoods of Eagle Rock and Highland Park, which he represents in the Assembly.

Ahn, on the other hand, is running as an outsider opposing “politics as usual.” He has sent mailers touting the support of retired NBA player and former high school classmate Jason Collins. He also sent one mailer to Republicans in the district, highlighting the support of former California GOP Chairman Shawn Steele.

Ahn would be the first Korean American Democrat in Congress if elected, and the first Korean American to serve in nearly 20 years.

His campaign concentrated on registering and turning out voters in Koreatown, which served as a major base of support for Ahn in the primary. His major endorsements include L.A. City Councilman David Ryu and Virginia House Delegate Mark Keam, both Korean Americans.

Their money is coming from different places too

Both candidates have demonstrated their ability to raise funds quickly: Gomez has raised about $635,000 since joining the race, and Ahn has amassed about $526,000.

Gomez has a lot of Sacramento connections, and as a result has raised more than $200,000 from powerful political committees. Much of that money came from the campaigns of his fellow legislators, and other contributions came from the healthcare and labor union sectors.

Ahn loaned himself an additional $295,000, bringing his total cash to more than $800,000. Ahn’s father is president of the influential Korean American Federation, and much of Ahn’s fundraising for the race has been concentrated in and around Koreatown. He’s also garnered financial support from many attorneys and people involved in real estate investment.

Where do they fall on the political spectrum?

Gomez is regarded as reliably progressive vote in the Legislature and has received perfect legislative scores in the Assembly from groups such as Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and Equality California. He often touts his work expanding California’s paid family leave law and his votes to increase the minimum wage.

In an L.A. Times questionnaire sent to candidates in the primary, Gomez said he would fight to save the Affordable Care Act and push for a single-payer healthcare system, and would oppose using taxpayer funds to build a border wall while pushing to make Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals a permanent policy.

Ahn, who was a Republican until switching parties in 2012, has promised to bring a “business sensibility” to the office if elected and appears to be taking a more centrist approach. He calls himself a progressive who can also be pragmatic, saying in the questionnaire that Democrats should negotiate with Republicans on healthcare and immigration policy. He said certain aspects of federal healthcare law should remain intact, such as allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and ensuring coverage of preexisting conditions. He said he would fight any immigration policy that would include “breaking families apart” as part of immigration reform.

How much is all this costing?

The estimated cost of the April 4 primary alone was about $1.3 million, according to L.A. County election officials and the June runoff is expected to cost another $1.3 million.

The 24 candidates in the primary spent at least $2.9 million collectively, or an average of about $67.97 per vote.

The full taxpayer cost of both elections won’t be known for months.

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.


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April 20, 5:18 p.m.: This article was updated with the latest estimated taxpayer cost of both elections.

This article was originally published April 19.

An earlier version of this story misstated the average amount of money spent per vote as $86.74.
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