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Without party support, this Democratic assemblywoman is out on a limb — but isn't giving up on reelection

Without party support, this Democratic assemblywoman is out on a limb — but isn't giving up on reelection
Patty Lopez watches as ballots are counted in her 2014 race against then-incumbent Raul Bocanegra, who she bested by fewer than 500 votes. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent sunny Saturday, with the calendar creeping closer to election day, Democratic California Assembly candidate Al Muratsuchi got a boost from a powerful friend. Outside Muratsuchi’s South Bay campaign headquarters, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) shook hands, posed for photos with volunteers and praised his former colleague as a “person who understands this community” while campaign volunteers munched on tacos in the shade.

Meanwhile, halfway across Los Angeles County, a Democratic incumbent facing one of the toughest reelection fights of any Southern California office holder was practically on her own. Patty Lopez, who is up against former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra in her San Fernando Valley district, strolled through the inaugural Armenian Cultural Festival in Tujunga with a half-dozen volunteers, handing out campaign fliers from a reusable shopping bag slung over her shoulder.

Rendon crisscrossed Southern California, going from Orange County to coastal Los Angeles before swinging east to San Bernardino County, stumping for five targeted Democratic candidates that weekend. Lopez, who failed to get the California Democratic Party’s endorsement this year, was not one of them.

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“I’ve been blocked from my party, but my district knows who is Patty Lopez,” she said during a brief break from handing out fliers a friend had helped her translate into Armenian. “Sometimes I feel disappointed, but that’s not stopping me from doing what I need to do.”

Lopez, an immigrant from Mexico, shocked many when she defeated fellow Democrat Bocanegra by 466 votes two years ago after running an amateur campaign funded in part by selling tamales and pozole.

In Sacramento, she has bucked her party on issues like high-speed rail and seems to take pride in the fact that she hasn’t made many friends there. Detractors in her district called on her to resign when she first took office and say she’s been an ineffective leader who hasn’t been willing to work with others in Sacramento. Lopez’s supporters, including other Democrats in the Legislature, have complained that other members have ostracized her.

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), left, campaigns at a local festival in Tujunga.
Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), left, campaigns at a local festival in Tujunga. (Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

Lopez’s appearance at the festival was one of five events she would attend that day, and her only campaign stop, with just three weeks to go until election day.

“Until the last day, I’m going to do my job. That’s my responsibility,” Lopez said when asked why she wasn’t spending more time campaigning.

Walking from one booth to another, Lopez introduced herself to a Tupperware vendor, volunteers raising money for a Christmas play and the family of a local school board candidate. She sat down to speak with a group from the Church of Scientology and walked away with a thick volume from their table. She ended each interaction with a familiar refrain: “I’m looking forward to your support of Patty.”

“I’m married, I have two kids, I’m a grandma,” she told one woman as Bocanegra, her opponent, interrupted to shake hands with the woman and her family. Lopez put on a smile and laughed politely as he left.

Bocanegra spent the morning at a community clean-up day, then stopped by his campaign headquarters to deliver lawn signs and walk precincts before going to the festival himself.

“We are taking nothing for granted,” Bocanegra said, standing at a booth marked with his campaign banners and lawn signs. “The people of this community  just want to see things get done. And that’s what my campaign is all about.”

In the June primary, with six Democrats on the ballot, Bocanegra received 44.4% of the vote, and Lopez came in a distant second at 27.2%. The only legislative incumbent to win a lower share of votes in the top-two primary era was Betsy Butler, who got just 25.8% in the 2012 primary. She went on to lose her seat in a 50.5%-49.5% defeat that November.

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Back in Torrance, Muratsuchi, who is challenging one of the most vulnerable Republican legislators of the election cycle, Assemblyman David Hadley of Manhattan Beach, called his campaign a “statewide cause.”

“Democrats from throughout the state of California are coming together here in the South Bay,” Muratsuchi said.

No fewer than 10 current Assembly members up and down the state, some from as far as Sacramento and Salinas, sent their staff to knock on doors and deliver lawn signs for Muratsuchi, who lost the seat in 2014 by 700 votes.

State and county Democratic Party committees have spent more on Muratsuchi’s race than any other — more than $2 million of the $14.8 million they’ve spread across the most crucial races so far in their quest to regain a super-majority in both houses of the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Lopez says she’s had to personally appeal to members of her own caucus not to actively campaign against her. “I asked them, ‘Please don’t get in the middle,’” she said. 

She has raised an anemic $126,000 compared with the more than $1 million Bocanegra has raked in from business groups, oil companies and labor unions. Rendon, whose reelection committee has contributed the maximum amount allowed to Lopez’s campaign, has called the situation “complicated” and “awkward.” Democratic Party rules restrict leaders from spending party resources on a candidate that has failed to win its endorsement.

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“Our hands are tied,” Rendon said in an interview after the Muratsuchi event. Rendon said that while he hasn’t appeared at campaign events with Lopez, he’s attended some of her fundraisers in Sacramento.

Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who used to run Assembly campaigns for state party leaders, says Rendon is in a very difficult position.

“As speaker, you’re leading a lot of people and a lot of interests and attempting to get them all to row in the same direction,” Sragow said. “As a leader, he’s got to hear what his members have to say and reflect that in what he does.”

Lopez says she is a “woman of faith” and believes “100%” that voters will reelect her on Nov. 8.

Later, Richard Wall, a Los Angeles police officer, pulled her aside.

“I just want you to know what a great job you’ve been doing. Just hang in there, it’s almost done,” he said, words meant to encourage her in the home stretch of the campaign. 

Lopez, however, seemed to take it differently.

“It is,” she replied. “After this, I’m looking forward to just being in the community. That’s what I love to do.”

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.

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