If history is any guide, turnout for the April 4 special election to replace Xavier Becerra in the central Los Angeles congressional seat is likely to be low — even lower than the dismal turnout in last week's L.A. County election. And that's a shame because what's at stake in this race is more than just the rare chance to pick a new representative for an exceedingly safe Democratic seat who may be in the job for decades to come.
Attracting 23 candidates, all but four of them Democrats, the race also is a referendum on that party's ascendant progressive wing. On one side is the candidate backed by the party establishment, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Eagle Rock). On the other are 18 Democrats who say it's time for a more progressive direction for the party. (They also say it's time for the local Latino political establishment to stop trying to dictate who gets to run for which seat by anointing a candidate such as Gomez before the race has really begun.)
It's more than just campaign talk. This district, which stretches from the upscale single-family homes of Highland Park to the dense immigrant neighborhoods of MacArthur Park, voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary last June. It's a deeply blue district, and overwhelmingly Latino, and this race will be the first test since the presidential election of whether Sanders' progressivism still resonates with California voters. In addition to a Green Party candidate whose positions mirror Sanders', two of the entrants are ardent Berniecrats: Arturo Carmona, who worked for Sanders' presidential campaign, and Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and labor activist who supported the Sanders movement early on. Many of the others share similar political views about healthcare, education and campaign finance.
In fact, there's little daylight between the 19 Democrats' policy positions. Even the more centrist candidates, Gomez and Sara Hernandez, are strong defenders of the environment, immigrants and healthcare. The main differences are in their priorities, their backgrounds and their ability to get things done.
The winner of this race should be someone who can bridge the gap between the old guard and new idealists, who understands the complexity of this extraordinarily diverse district and whose commitment to its residents is irrefutable. He or she also will need the skills, temperament and experience to get things accomplished as the most junior member of the minority party in the most highly polarized environment in recent history.
That's a lot to ask of one person. Fortunately for voters, among the plethora of quality candidates in this race (refreshingly, more than half of whom are women), there is one who meets all those requirements: Maria Cabildo.
If that name is familiar, it is because Cabildo spent more than two decades working to build affordable housing in East L.A. and push social justice measures, such as the campaign to legalize street vendors. She may not describe herself as a devotee of Sanders, but she shares those progressive values. Cabildo was born and raised in the district, and after an Ivy League education, she returned home as a twenty-something with big ideas. Unlike most people, she put them into action by co-founding the East Los Angeles Community Corp., which has become a significant force for good in the region.
What makes Cabildo rise above the others is that, at the relatively young age of 49, she's already had a distinguished career outside of politics — and because she was a low-income housing developer, she's had to build consensus on some divisive proposals. That means she knows how to work both inside and outside government. Furthermore, she's widely respected by civic leaders and community advocates because of her understated yet powerful leadership style.
Unfortunately, that low-key style, combined with a voice disability that leaves her soft-spoken, keeps her from standing out in a crowded race that includes more than one slogan-shouting showman. To advance to the general election in May, she'll need to shuck off her naturally self-effacing manner and step up her campaign to show that she's the obvious choice.
Gomez, who was backed by the party and the labor unions early on, is a decent legislator, if not particularly distinguished. But he doesn't have a track record of strong leadership, building relationships or working across party lines to get things done.
Some or all of those same criticisms apply to the other candidates as well, as accomplished and impressive as many of them are. But Cabildo has proved she can deliver for her constituents even against long odds, which makes her the best choice for the 34th district.