If you asked Wendy Carrillo three months ago, the California Democratic Party's endorsement of Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez in the crowded race for Los Angeles' 34th Congressional District was a "coronation," the result of "dirty tricks being played by establishment politicians."
"What the Democratic political establishment is telling us is, 'We know best…It's Jimmy's turn to represent this district,'" read a letter of protest signed by Carrillo and five other primary candidates who were angry about the party's endorsement process.
But on a recent Saturday, Carrillo stood shoulder to shoulder with Gomez at a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights, encouraging her supporters to back him over attorney Robert Lee Ahn.
After a bruising primary that saw Gomez pegged as the candidate of the party establishment, he has since received support from 10 of his former opponents and some of the progressive groups they courted. That could be key in a district that supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential race.
While none of the Sanders-affiliated candidates made it through the congressional primary, Gomez's moves to appeal to their supporters could be an indicator of the growing influence of the party's reenergized left flank. And after the weekend's California Democratic Party convention, where progressive activists engaged in a show of force with repeated protests and a contested chair's race, it could be a smart move.
Gomez is one of two Democrats in the runoff to replace Xavier Becerra, who vacated the seat to become California's attorney general. Ahn is running as an outsider who says he'll combat "politics as usual." Gomez has tried to paint Ahn, a former Republican, as too moderate for the deep-blue district.
Despite Sanders' success there, voters who support his agenda failed to coalesce behind one candidate in the primary for the special election. Carrillo and two other hopefuls who often invoked Sanders' name split the vote and received a combined total of just 20%.
Since then, Gomez has tried to turn the focus to his progressive bona fides in an attempt to attract those voters. Gomez, who has been in the Legislature since 2012 and has received endorsements from dozens of elected officials including Becerra and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, has highlighted his more left-leaning support in recent weeks.
In addition to Carrillo, he's rolled out endorsements from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by former Democratic National Committee chairman candidate Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota; Democracy for America, a group that previously backed Carrillo; and the California Nurses Assn./National Nurses United, a major ally of Sanders that supported Gomez's former opponent Arturo Carmona, a former Sanders campaign aide.
Earlier this month, Gomez capped off the string of announcements with a highly sought-after endorsement from Our Revolution, the political group launched by Sanders himself. And just after the state Democratic Party convention last weekend, Gomez joined a newly formed progressive legislative caucus.
"The Bernie vote is becoming more and more important as time goes on," said Maclen Zilber, a strategist who helped run the short-lived campaign of former assembly speaker John A. Perez for the seat.
For Gomez, thought to be the front-runner in the race, it makes sense to fight the air of inevitability by highlighting where his views closely align with those held by progressive voters, Zilber said. That's especially true in a special election, where turnout is expected to dip even lower than the 14% seen in the April primary.
"There's not a whole lot of milquetoast middle-of-the-road voters who turn out in a special election," Zilber said.
Ahn has seized on running as an outsider, calling Gomez a "professional politician … financed by Sacramento special interests." At a Thursday debate, Ahn said: "Special interests, big 'pharma,' big bankers … it's all payback time for [Gomez donors] on Day One." An independent expenditure campaign launched by an Ahn donor has highlighted campaign cash Gomez received from pharmaceutical companies, Monsanto and payday lenders.
But Gomez and his allies have highlighted his record supporting progressive causes in the Legislature, including helping pass a bill to expand paid family leave, co-writing a proposal to strengthen requirements for campaign ad disclosures and supporting a single-payer healthcare bill that's become a rallying point for progressives in California.
"They look at me, and yes, I'm the current elected official, but I've also advocated for almost every issue they care about," Gomez said in an interview. "The money doesn't buy me and it never will…People should hold elected officials accountable for how they vote. Period."
Carrillo said she met with Gomez shortly after the primary before deciding to endorse him.
"I wanted to make sure that he was going to be outspoken, but ultimately Jimmy and I share the same values," Carrillo said. "I'm hoping that with my support and with the support of the people who voted for me, we can also push him to that level."
After her endorsement, Carrillo said she received criticism from some of her supporters, including one who questioned how she could go from being anti-establishment to a "cheerleader" for the establishment.
Rudy Montalvo, a longtime Boyle Heights activist who supported Carmona in the primary, said he struggled at first with the idea of supporting Gomez.
"I lost a lot of faith in the Democratic Party because of how it had been steered," said Montalvo, a Sanders backer who's still upset about last year's presidential primary.
But Montalvo didn't like the fact that Ahn was once a Republican, calling him a "flip-flopper." Once he read more about Gomez's record, Montalvo said, he also appreciated the assemblyman's roots as a union organizer.
"With Jimmy's experience, the kind of work he's done, would I put all that aside just because all of the establishment jumped on Jimmy's bandwagon to support him? It wasn't a tough call."
Ahn also appears to be moving further to the left. While his earlier comments in an L.A. Times questionnaire suggested he'd be open to negotiating with Republicans to preserve parts of Obamacare, the former L.A. city planning commissioner has more recently mentioned single-payer healthcare in social media posts.
In a statement, Ahn's campaign called him the "only real progressive" in the race, citing Gomez's support of Clinton in the presidential primary. (Ahn's campaign did not respond to a request asking who he voted for.) His campaign also said he has "publicly advocated for universal single payer healthcare for years" and has "endorsed gay marriage," and accused Gomez of being "largely silent" on the issue.
Gomez has a perfect legislative score from prominent LGBTQ rights group Equality California and wrote a bill that expanded options for identifying same-sex parents on a child's birth certificate.
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2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a remark by Ahn from a Thursday night debate.