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Assemblywoman: ‘I don’t feel respected’ by Democratic colleagues as some help her rival

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando) trailed her challenger, Democrat Raul Bocanegra. Bocanegra previously held Lopez's seat.
Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando) trailed her challenger, Democrat Raul Bocanegra. Bocanegra previously held Lopez’s seat.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez stunned everyone in the Sacramento establishment when she defeated incumbent Raul Bocanegra in 2014 by 466 votes after running a bare-bones campaign funded in part by selling tamales and pozole.

Two years later, Lopez is running in a competitive primary as an incumbent herself but has few of the advantages incumbents typically enjoy.

A half-dozen of Lopez’s colleagues have endorsed Bocanegra in his comeback attempt, and he’s the most formidable of her five Democratic challengers Tuesday. The California Latino Caucus, of which Lopez is a member, has endorsed them both. And although Bocanegra has been out of office for two years, he has managed to raise nearly 10 times as much money as Lopez. He also earned the influential California Democratic Party endorsement.

“I don’t feel respected as a member,” Lopez told The Times in a phone interview. “I’m a Democrat, a 100%, progressive Democrat, and I’ve proven it. To treat me this way, it’s unfair.”

Lopez has several endorsements and campaign contributions from fellow Assembly Democrats, including a nod from Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), who took over the post in March.

But with days left until the election, Rendon has not campaigned with Lopez. On the last Saturday before the primary, as she was busy criss-crossing her district asking for votes, Rendon was not far away, appearing on stage in Sylmar with Bocanegra at a labor union rally. He gave his former colleague a subtle nod for his work on the 2014 water bond, Rendon’s trademark bill.

“It’s just awkward, in general. It’s a very unique race in that we all, most of us … know Raul and worked with Raul,” Rendon said. 

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Democratic Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown of nearby San Bernardino faces her own stiff challenge from within the party — and Rendon has rallied by her side twice in the last two weeks. Brown got the state party endorsement.

Rendon told The Times that his hands are tied by a state party rule that bars the caucus from using resources to help elect a candidate who hasn’t been endorsed. (The rule does not prohibit him and other caucus members from personally contributing to Lopez’s campaign or campaigning for Lopez.)

“It’s a difficult race for us. I mean, we always try to protect our incumbents, but Ms. Lopez didn’t get the endorsement of the party and that limits our ability to help,” he said.

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Not everyone buys that argument.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), a Lopez mentor who says she’s had “many conversations” with Rendon encouraging him to help his colleague, says the speaker could ask more members to contribute money or volunteers to Lopez. “Those are the things you don’t need the party endorsement for, those are the things we can do for each other as members.” 

Those are tactics former Speaker John A. Perez was not shy about using, says Andrew Acosta, a Democratic consultant. In 2012, for instance, Perez sent a memo to his caucus asking members to contribute to some of its most vulnerable incumbents, rewarding those who gave the most. Perez reportedly also threatened to punish those who became involved in races he deemed off-limits.

Nine legislators have contributed money to or endorsed Bocanegra. He’s raised more than $640,000, much of it from pro-business interest groups and corporations. He has endorsements from the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, a third of the members of the L.A. City Council and state law enforcement and firefighter unions. He’s also benefited from more than $660,000 in independent expenditures supporting him and opposing Lopez, mostly by the California Assn. of Realtors, the California Charter Schools Assn. and oil companies.

Lopez has raised about $70,000 and her endorsements, which include labor heavyweights such as the California Nurses Association and the SEIU, are mostly peppered on a Facebook page that also features citizens “officially” declaring their support.

Turnover in her office has been high and much of her staff comes from outside the Sacramento establishment. Jim Leahy, her third and current chief of staff, was previously a manager at a CVS store. 

Patty Lopez, left, watches as ballots are counted in her 2014 race against then-incumbent Raul Bocanegra, who she bested by less than 500 votes.
Patty Lopez, left, watches as ballots are counted in her 2014 race against then-incumbent Raul Bocanegra, who she bested by less than 500 votes. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

And Lopez has had campaign finance mishaps. She has been fined a total of $7,900 for failing to file required campaign contribution reports on time and receiving cash donations of $100 or more, in violation of state campaign finance law.

Lopez, who said she feels “really uncomfortable” raising money for politics, has spent more than $12,000 of her donations on civic donations to local groups, twice the amount she’s spent on campaign mailers.

Lopez, who was born in Mexico and speaks sometimes halting, thickly accented English, often calls herself “a simple woman with simple values” and is almost militant about her status as an outsider. She ran last time, she has said, as a way to challenge “the system to listen to us.” 

Bocanegra, she said, “represents money. He represents business. But I represent the people.” 

Bocanegra does not like the front-runner label and told The Times that he doesn’t have the luxury of a full-time official staff to address the needs of constituents.

Raul Bocanegra, right, in a 2014 file photo when he was a member of the California Assembly.
Raul Bocanegra, right, in a 2014 file photo when he was a member of the California Assembly. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

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During a lunch break at a pupuseria next door to his Pacoima campaign office, Bocanegra said the district has not been “well-served” under Lopez’s watch.

“When your legislative accomplishments are a couple of bills that really don’t do anything for a part of Los Angeles that has historically been underserved, that’s unacceptable,” he said as he sipped a Diet Coke. “So I’m running, and I’m running like it’s my first time.”

After lunch was a meet-and-greet over coffee, and then plans to ride through the district in a fire truck with the head of the Los Angeles firefighters union.

It’s quite a departure from what he was doing the last time he was on the ballot. The final weekend before he lost his seat, Bocanegra was on a bus tour outside the district with Democratic leaders, bolstering campaigns for fellow incumbents perceived to be vulnerable just days before he was ousted by a political novice.

On the campaign trail this time, Bocanegra has frequently touted his central role in the 2014 film tax credit bill. He said he’s eager to work on transportation, education and other pressing issues for the district if voters return him to Sacramento.

“It’s great that we’ve got somebody that looks like us, but we’ve got needs, and more than just the idea of drying clothes on clotheslines,” he said, referring to one of a handful of Lopez’s bills that’s been signed by the governor that establishes the right of apartment dwellers to hang laundry out to dry. “What are we doing about schools? What are we doing about jobs?”

The other candidates are Mina Creswell, who chairs a veterans organization, San Fernando Mayor Joel Fajardo, former San Fernando councilwoman Joanne Baltierre-Fernandez and Ken Suscavage, a substitute teacher who previously ran for the seat.

Lopez says pundits shouldn’t count her out.

“If I did it one time, with less than I have now, I can do it again,” she said. 

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.

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