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Political Notebook: LA Assembly Race Draws Wide Field

by Matthew S. Bajko

Luis Lopez
Luis Lopez  

With 13 candidates having qualified for the October 3 special primary election for the 51st Assembly District seat in Los Angeles, it is widely expected that the race will be decided by the December 5 runoff between the top two vote-getters next month.

Three gay male candidates - Luis Lopez, David Vela, and Alex De Ocampo - and a number of straight allies, including Wendy Carrillo and Mark Vargas, are all competing to represent the district, which includes the LGBT-friendly neighborhoods of Eagle Rock and Echo Park, as well as a portion of Silver Lake, historically one of Los Angeles' LGBT enclaves. The district also encompasses other neighborhoods north and east of downtown Los Angeles, such as Chinatown, Historic Filipinotown, and unincorporated East L.A.

The Assembly seat became vacant after former Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) won election to the state's 34th Congressional District seat in June. He succeeded Xavier Becerra, who was appointed the state's attorney general earlier this year by Governor Jerry Brown due to the election last fall of Kamala Harris as California's junior U.S. senator.

Should one of the trio of out candidates succeed Gomez in the state Legislature, they would become the ninth member of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus. Their election would mark a record for the number of out legislators serving in the Statehouse.

Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, endorsed all three of the gay candidates and Vargas, who has served on its board for three years. Last year, he spent seven days by the bedside of his lesbian cousin, Laura Vargas, who was wounded in the terrorist attack at Orlando, Florida's gay Pulse nightclub.

So far, the race has attracted little media attention, giving those candidates with better name recognition and community connections a leg up. Polling conducted in July by Lopez's campaign found that among 402 likely voters, both he (at 10 percent) and Carrillo (at 11 percent) were the only ones to receive more than single digit backing.

Those findings will likely change, however, as the race kicks into full gear this month. And all of the candidates will be striving to overcome voter fatigue, as the October ballot will be the sixth one this year for the district and the seventh since last November.

"Voters don't know the special election is happening and many have had way too many elections this year. The challenge will be to get voters out," said Lopez, 44, a longtime Democratic Party activist who lost his first bid for the Assembly seat in 2012 to Gomez. "We are expecting very low turnout. I think in the special election for the congressional seat turnout was 14 percent, so getting my supporters and my base out will be our key to victory."

Carrillo, 37, who landed in sixth place in the special primary election for Becerra's congressional seat, agreed that voter fatigue is an issue the Assembly candidates will face.

"I feel pretty confident about my campaign and what I am doing to set myself up to win October 3," said Carrillo. "I hope voters vote for me because I am the best person to represent this district."

Meet the Candidates

Luis Lopez

Having spent the last five years building up a political base in the district, Lopez is widely expected to survive to the runoff election. He and his partner of 13 years, Hans Johnson, moved to Eagle Rock in 2011 after their former home in Silver Lake ended up in a neighboring Assembly district where several incumbent lawmakers also landed through the decennial redistricting process for legislative districts.

He was born in the East L.A. portion of the district to immigrant parents, as both his mom and dad were from Michoacán state in Mexico. (His mother died when he was 8 years old.) The family then moved to El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley where Lopez grew up.

He graduated from Pomona College with a degree in sociology and earned a master's in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Lopez is the director of government affairs at City of Hope comprehensive cancer center.

He has been involved in a number of local organizations and helped launch the East Area Progressive Democrats, which has become the largest chartered Democratic club in Los Angeles County with nearly 800 members. His campaign's poll findings validated what he already suspected, that he has high name recognition with district voters.

The issues he ran on five years ago, from income inequality to homelessness, are still impacting residents of the Assembly district today, noted Lopez.

"I am running for the same reasons I ran for in 2012. That is to bring bold progressive leadership to Sacramento and to fight to defend pathways to opportunity for working families that are critically important to moving folks out of poverty and into the middle class," he said. "Folks in my district know that I am passionate about local issues, that I roll up my sleeves, and am effective at delivering change."

Wendy Carrillo

Carrillo was born in El Salvador, and her family left for Los Angeles in 1985 due to the country's civil war, in which her father died. Her mother remarried after meeting a man from Mexico who had also immigrated to America. Carrillo grew up in the district and graduated from East Los Angeles College then from Cal State Los Angeles, earning a master's in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California.

A few months ago she moved back into the district, to a place in El Sereno, in order to run for the Assembly seat. Her reason for doing so mirrors why she entered the congressional race earlier this year.

"What prompted me to run for Congress was the rhetoric we are hearing across the country and also from the White House, which is very anti-immigrant and not supportive of people of color and women, Latinos, immigrants, and LGBTQ folks," said Carrillo, who has worked for both print media and radio. "It is not the right direction for the country that I love. I want to be part of the decision-making process that brings these voices to the table."

Carrillo, one of two women in the race, would help increase the number of female lawmakers in Sacramento should she win the seat. There are currently only 26, the lowest roster of women serving in the Statehouse since 1998.

"We can't just talk about gender equality and not work toward it," she said.

She had sought EQCA's endorsement in the race and pledged to be a strong advocate for LGBT rights if elected to the seat.

"I think the LGBTQ community can see me as an ally," she said. "I do look at various issues through an intersectional view."

David Vela

Vela, 42, is an educator who lost his re-election bid in 2015 to a seat on the Montebello Unified School District Board of Education. He and Lopez were co-founders of the Latino LGBT activist group Honor PAC, which so far is remaining neutral in the race.

Born and raised by a single mother, Vela's family settled in Lincoln Heights after moving from Del Rio, Texas. His grandmother raised him part-time in East Los Angeles while he attended Montebello Unified schools.

He graduated from UCLA with a science degree and earned a master's degree in public policy with concentrations in economics and international relations from Pepperdine University. Vela, who is single, moved a year ago into Echo Park. He is a professor at East Los Angeles College.

His platform includes access to affordable daycare for working parents, more money for urban parks, and more resources for school districts and college-bound students. He supports free community college and priority admission to the UC and CSU systems for California residents.

"All in all I am really focused on a constituent-driven campaign to deliver resources to the district," said Vela. "I am a big believer in the primary job of the Legislature, and the legislator himself, is to bring resources into the district."

Alex De Ocampo

De Ocampo, 38, is an adviser to the Saban Family Foundation, created by philanthropist and media executive Haim Saban , and serves as a board member on the California Film Commission and the California State Summer School for the Arts. He lost his 2013 bid for a Los Angeles city council seat that overlaps with the Assembly district.

Gomez presided over his wedding to Todd Sargent ; the couple two years ago moved to the Mt. Washington neighborhood and are fostering an 8-month-old boy that they hope to adopt. If elected, De Ocampo would be the first LGBT Filipino state legislator in Sacramento.

His family emigrated from the Philippines to Los Angeles in the 1970s. His father, who arrived first, slept on park benches while saving up enough money to bring his mother and older siblings to America. De Ocampo was born in Los Angeles and had been living on the border between east Hollywood and Historic Filipinotown prior to moving in with Sargent.

"My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 9 and didn't have health insurance. He had to go back to the Philippines for care; his cancer spread and I never got a chance to say goodbye," he recalled. "My mom worked 80 hours a week to care for us on her own."

He credits his public school education and the assistance he received from community programs for why he thrived and was able to attend college. De Ocampo graduated from California State University Northridge with a degree in communication studies.

"I could have gone in a different direction. But because of the schools and programs, they really kept me off the streets and focused. For that I am so grateful," he said. "Running for Assembly made me realize how important it is to strengthen California and the opportunities for people like me and people who just immigrated here and are in need of health care."

One of his key issues he would focus on in the Assembly is helping other foster parents and working families gain access to affordable child care. And similar to his council race, jobs and housing are other top concerns.

"The bottom line is I am running because I want to make sure California remains a place for everyone," he said, "where no matter what your background is or where you are from, if you play by the rules you can succeed."

Mark Vargas

Vargas, 41, who serves on the state coastal commission, is president of Mission Infrastructure, a project management firm serving government and private sector agencies in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Vargas helped shaped EQCA's "Safe and Equal" initiative, which saw state lawmakers last year adopt six gun-safety bills.

"It was a real eye-opener for me and a major reason for why I decided to run for office," he said of the legislative fight. "I saw there really was power to make change at the state level and to change the national dialogue on items like this."

His parents both immigrated to Los Angeles - his mother from Mexico and his father from Colombia. They ran a small print shop during the day; at night his father worked at a large printing company in East LA.

Vargas graduated early from USC with a degree in political science and international relations. He worked in Washington, D.C. for the late Congressman George Brown (D-California), took a job with the Days of Dialogue organization following the L.A. riots, and then moved to Sacramento to work as a special adviser to former Governor Gray Davis until pivoting to the private sector.

Vargas serves on the Los Angeles Unified School District's personnel commission and has long worked with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, on whose board he serves, to protect open space in the district and restore the culverted L.A. River to a more natural state. Along with environmental issues, Vargas would focus on jobs, housing, and public safety issues in the Legislature.

"My message is I will roll up my sleeves and figure out the best way to provide relief, whether it be boosting paychecks or more access to higher-paying jobs through job creation and training," he said.

For 10 years he had lived in downtown Los Angeles until moving two blocks to Chinatown this spring in order to run for the Assembly seat. He doubts his doing so will impact his chances in the race.

"This district has a long history of carpetbaggers, if you will. Kevin de Leon, Fabian Nunez, and Jimmy Gomez all moved into the district," said Vargas. "What I have heard from the community is they are less interested in whether someone just moved here or not and more interested in who has the most expertise and who is best fit to represent them in Sacramento. Time and time again I hear that person is me, so I am feeling pretty confident of my chances in this race."

Statewide Issues

In terms of statewide issues, the quintet of candidates the B.A.R. spoke with all support seeing the state enact a single-payer health care system and back building the high-speed rail system, though most expressed concerns about the bullet train's track alignment in the district. They also voiced concerns about the environmental impacts of the Delta Tunnels project and questioned its cost effectiveness in delivering drinking water to southern California water districts.

They all have various LGBT issues they would champion in Sacramento. Lopez pointed to aging issues. Carrillo would focus on access to health care, especially at community clinics, for LGBT people and people living with HIV or AIDS.

Vela would continue to examine the tax benefits the state offers to nonprofits that discriminate against LGBT people. Gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles), who has endorsed Vela, has carried several bills focused on the issue. He also would focus on employment issues for transgender individuals and housing for the LGBT community, especially people living with HIV.

De Ocampo would also focus on LGBT youth, in particular transgender individuals. Vargas would also want to carry legislation aimed at protecting the rights of the transgender community.

Five other Democratic candidates are also seeking the 51st Assembly District seat: dermatologist Ron Birnbaum ; former Obama administration civil rights attorney Gabriel Sandoval, who serves on the state's Voting Modernization Board; Los Angeles Community College District trustee Mike Fong; union advocate Barbara Torres; and job developer Mario Olmos. While no Republican entered the race, two minor party candidates did - Libertarian construction worker Andrew S. Aguero and warehouse operations coordinator John Prysner, with the Peace and Freedom Party - while independent Patrick Koppula , a government innovation consultant, is also on the ballot.

The winner of the seat would need to seek a full two-year term next year and first run in the June 2018 primary. The top two vote-getters in that race, regardless of party affiliation, would then compete against each other on the November ballot.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. The column returns Monday, September 11.

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