Column: In Orange County, an Assembly seat fight for the future of Latino politics
Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente strode to the podium at Anaheim City Hall last Tuesday to address the City Council and locked eyes with Councilmember Avelino Valencia. The two are running against each other for the open 68th Assembly District seat in the June 7 primary and are expected to advance to the general election in November.
Their signs are all over Anaheim and Santa Ana, where Valencia and Vicente are respectively from and where I’ve spent my entire life. But they had never run into each other on the campaign trail — until now.
The previous week, news broke that the FBI was looking into corruption in the city over the proposed sale of Angel Stadium and by a “cabal” that supposedly rules my hometown. The news made national headlines, and Mayor Harry Sidhu had resigned after Valencia and other councilmembers called for him to step down.
For Vicente, his opponent’s words weren’t good enough.
Reading from a prepared speech, he accused Valencia of being “funded by the same systems” that fouled Anaheim politics. “How can we trust that there’s no political favor with these hundreds of thousands of dollars?” Vicente asked, before asking Valencia to suspend his assembly campaign “for the love of Anaheim” and help “clean up the mess he stayed silent about until now.”
Valencia looked calmly ahead as residents in the packed council chambers applauded.
It was the latest volley in their fight for votes. For my vote — and my political soul too.
The sons of Mexican immigrants represent two sides of the same Latino political coin that the Democratic Party desperately needs to pocket to remain relevant.
Not long after the 1994 elections, many high-ranking Republican functionaries and conservative intellectuals began wondering aloud whether Gov.
Valencia is a 33-year-old millennial — a first-term Anaheim councilmember with roots in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán who has worked for the past six years as a staffer for retiring Assemblymember Tom Daly, a moderate Democrat.
Vicente is a 26-year-old zillennial — a first-time political candidate whose parents are from Oaxaca and who’s taking a leave of absence from his job as policy director at Chispa, a nonprofit on the vanguard of progressive policies in Santa Ana.
Valencia has raised nearly $326,000 through last week from an assortment of labor unions, Big Business and politicians on both sides of the proverbial aisle, including Speaker of the House Anthony Rendón and former Anaheim Councilmember Kris Murray.
Vicente has raised about $51,000, mostly from small donations. Two Republican candidates haven’t even raised enough money to report to the California secretary of state.
The face-off is drawing regionwide attention, both for what it says about an Orange County too many people still figure as a conservative wasteland, and for what it represents for Latino Democratic politics in Southern California and beyond.
Across the country, young progressive Latinos are mounting vocal challenges against established pols. In South Texas, longtime Rep. Henry Cuellar — the only Democrat in Congress to openly oppose abortion — is in a deadlock with 29-year-old Jessica Cisneros. In Los Angeles, Eunisses Hernandez has cast incumbent Gil Cedillo as little better than a vendido in her race against the L.A. councilmember. Michael Ortega is doing the same against Rep. Lou Correa, whose congressional district covers the cities that Valencia and Vicente would represent.
They offer something different: a fight for the future, by the future.
“I’m thrilled that O.C. has more Latinos on the ballot,” said Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, which declined to endorse either candidate. “I’m excited that we will have a Latino representative, regardless of who wins.”
All my Anaheim friends support Valencia, whose mailers have choked up my Anaheim post office box all this month. All my Santa Ana pals support Vicente and have flooded my social media feeds with photos of his get-out-the-vote walks. After the council meeting, each side texted me their thoughts: the former group trashed what they said was Vicente’s grandstanding, the latter made him out to be a modern-day Emiliano Zapata.
The breakdown of their respective support doesn’t surprise me: the Anaheimers of my generation are mostly from Jalisco and Zacatecas, hotbeds of the rancho libertarian politics with which I was born and still largely subscribe to. The santaneros I kick it with are from other states with more radical traditions and who sparked my political awakening in college.
I know Valencia and Vicente well enough that when I met them to talk about their efforts before the Anaheim council meeting, we comfortably exchanged chocas (Chicano slang for a soul handshake) and bro hugs.
Who’ll win my vote?
Both immediately tied when I asked each to pick a Mexican restaurant where we could meet the weekend before the Anaheim council meeting. Vicente chose Taqueria Los Grandes, an old-school spot with a legendary salsa macha that’s fire.
Valencia went with Tacos Los Cholos, a social-media sensation that’s worth the hype and long lines.
I met Vicente first, and he offered a preview of his council speech without revealing his plans. Noting the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions Valencia has received, he said that voters in the 68th are sick of it.
“People can’t afford rent or gas, yet politicians are instead paying attention to special interests,” he said while digging into an enchilada plate. “The old ways aren’t working for us anymore.”
Vicente got into politics as an undergrad at UC Berkeley after police tear-gassed him and others during a solidarity march for Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. He applied for and received a spot on the city of Berkeley’s police oversight committee, where “the second oldest person was in their 40s.”
“It was important to be that young voice,” he continued, “because I was a voice for folks who really weren’t heard.”
But Vicente returned to Santa Ana in 2018 “jaded” by politics and with no real plans until he read an article by Chispa showing how the Santa Ana Police Officers Assn. influenced that year’s city elections.
Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente is running as a progressive in the newly redrawn 68th Assembly District.
He reached out to the group and offered his expertise, which they quickly leaned on to press the Santa Ana City Council to pass a rent-control measure last year and look into creating a police oversight commission.
When it came to lobbying Orange County’s state assemblymembers and senators for similar reforms in Sacramento, though, Vicente said he and his fellow Chispa members were ignored.
“Our generation is being impacted by the politics of that generation,” he said. “If this current establishment isn’t going to fight for us, then we have to fight. And our way has been winning.”
Establishment politics was what Valencia and I mostly talked about when we met.
Recorded phone conversations between leaders of Anaheim’s supposed shadow government caught them talking about how newcomer Valencia had a “very easy, bright future playing to” their machinations.
“They clearly didn’t know me,” he said, while scarfing down a beef rib taco. “I can talk to all people, take in their input, and at the end of the day not be persuaded by them and do what’s best by my constituents.”
He said that perspective came from working throughout his childhood in a Little Saigon mini-mart owned by his dad that specialized in products from across Latin America. “You should be able to meet people where they’re at,” Valencia said. “You never know who’s going to walk into the door and how their day has been.”
After attending Fullerton College, Valencia went to San Jose State on a football scholarship as a tight end, and thought about becoming a lawyer.
Everything changed when he took an internship with Gardena-area Assemblymember Steve Bradford in the early 2010s, in lieu of writing a senior thesis. “Seeing how laws were made, as opposed to being defended, changed me profoundly,” he said. “I wanted to be part of that, to give back to where I was from.”
Valencia brushed off any idea that he’s an establishment politician despite, well, the Democratic establishment supporting him.
“My constituents understand and believe in my ability to make the right decision,” he said. “They want to look past statements and focus on achieving actions,” which he said has included voting against the Angel Stadium deal and in favor of COVID relief.
Both Valencia and Vicente came off as smart, sincere and knowledgeable about what the 68th District needs. If they melded into a super-candidate, they would be perfect — which is to say I’m still not sure who I’ll vote for.
So I’ll just go with Vicente’s concluding words.
“Hopefully, we’ll both make it into the top two,” he said with a smile, “and then we’ll battle it out.”
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