Democratic labor activist Wendy Carrillo won a special election in Los Angeles on Tuesday night and will serve out the term of former assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, who was elected to Congress in a special election earlier this year.
Carrillo’s opponent, fellow Democrat Luis López, called her to concede late Tuesday evening as Carrillo led López 52.83% to 47.17% with a 943-vote margin.
Tuesday’s vote is the last in a series of four special elections that have reshuffled the political landscape in a section of Los Angeles stretching from Silver Lake to Eagle Rock and East Los Angeles.
The string of elections was triggered when Barbara Boxer announced her retirement from the U.S. Senate more than two years ago. Kamala Harris won Boxer’s seat, and Los Angeles Rep. Xavier Becerra was appointed to fill out Harris’ term as state attorney general. Gomez beat out a large field of candidates to succeed Becerra, a 24-year House veteran, and in July he began work in Washington.
Carrillo will take over for Gomez in the Assembly when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January to begin the second year of a two-year legislative session.
Carrillo, a former local radio host and communications manager for a Service Employees International Union affiliate, counted on her personal history — she was brought to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was a child, became a citizen in her early 20s and went on to graduate from Cal State L.A. and earn a master’s degree at USC — to resonate in the district, home to a large Latino population.
At an election night party at an East Los Angeles restaurant, Carrillo told a crowd of students, activists and political leaders including California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León that her win would send a message to other candidates from nontraditional backgrounds that transitioning into politics and winning elections is possible.
“You don’t need to wait to get tapped on the shoulder for someone to tell you it’s your turn,” she said. “You have to fight.”
Carrillo was the party establishment pick for the seat, and earned several coveted endorsements from the state Democratic Party, Emily’s List, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Democratic Legislative Women’s Caucus. Gomez also endorsed Carrillo.
Carrillo’s election is a win for the Legislative Women’s Caucus, which lost four seats held by women to men in the 2016 election, part of a decline in the number of women serving in Sacramento. In 2017, 26 women held seats in Sacramento, down from a high of 37 in 2006.
The caucus, led by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), made it a priority to ensure Gomez was replaced by a woman.
On Tuesday night, Garcia was on hand to celebrate Carrillo’s victory.
"I don't just want another woman in the Assembly,” she said. “[Carrillo's] background in journalism and her real-life experience as a refugee really allows her to be a bridge between communities. That is what we need.”
The effort to elect a woman to the Assembly comes as women’s groups and candidates — galvanized by the election of President Trump — have found new political strength around the nation.
Outside her Silver Lake polling place Tuesday, Laura Thornburg, a 46-year-old film librarian, said it was tough parsing out the differences between two progressive candidates such as Carrillo and López.
For Thornburg, electing a woman was the deciding factor.
“In the end I voted for Carrillo because I believe that having more women in politics is important,” she said.
Carrillo touched a nerve for some voters including Francine Fisher, a 75-year-old retiree from Mount Washington. Fisher canvassed for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election and she kept up her involvement in politics this year by assisting Carrillo’s campaign with data entry, canvassing and calling voters.
"I became involved because I hate Trump," she said. "We need more women in politics."
Carrillo’s ability to tap into an energized female electorate was an asset to her campaign, said Darry Sragow, a veteran campaign consultant who helped Democrats regain control of the Assembly in 1996.
Carrillo also had financial muscle behind her.
After she won the October special election, her campaign benefited from over $650,000 in outside spending from independent expenditure committees to support her or attack Lopez. The money came from a variety of sources including labor unions and a committee funded by charter school proponents.
That money was likely crucial in the low-turnout election. Just 10% of the approximately 220,000 registered voters in the district cast ballots in the October special election, and preliminary numbers late Tuesday indicated that 7.6% of voters had cast ballots. That number is expected to climb on Friday when the county releases an update that counts late and provisional ballots.
López, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University and is the director of government affairs for City of Hope Medical Center, stressed his resume working in government and with neighborhood groups in the district.
He is a board member at Planned Parenthood, previously served as president of the East Los Angeles Area Planning Commission and co-founded the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.
López previously ran for the Assembly seat in 2012, but lost to Gomez by about 19 percentage points. Like Carrillo, Gomez ran with the support of the Democratic Party and labor unions.
After conceding Tuesday night, López told The Times that he and Carrillo share similar stances on issues including affordable healthcare and housing. Her victory, he said, is a “a win” for northeast Los Angeles.