L.A.'s Tri-Hipster Area Braces for Yet Another Special Election

Clockwise from top left: Wendy Carrillo, Alex De Ocampo, Mike Fong, Luis Lopez
Clockwise from top left: Wendy Carrillo, Alex De Ocampo, Mike Fong, Luis Lopez
Courtesy the campaigns

All month long, the better part of Los Angeles' tri-hipster area has been inundated with campaign mailers of all shapes and sizes coming from candidates vying to replace Jimmy Gomez in the state Assembly. And not a single hipster among them! Oh, Joe Bray-Ali, where art thou?

The Oct. 3 special election features 13 candidates, nearly all of them Democrats. Most are pushing for Bernie-type proposals such as universal health care and free college and ponies and such. Which makes sense — the district voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"I would argue that it's the most fundamentally progressive Assembly district in California," says political consultant Leo Briones. The district includes most of Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Chinatown, El Sereno and East Los Angeles.

It's also the type of race that's becoming a rarity in California. Ever since term-limit rules were changed, in 2012, to allow new elected officials to stay in office for up to 12 years, politicians have been holding onto their jobs for longer. That means between now and 2024, there will only be a smattering of races without an incumbent. The Assembly District 51 election could be the last of its kind in Los Angeles for eight years.

"The chance for someone to come up from nowhere and become an Assembly member, it’s just not gonna be happening," says Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.

And curiously, there is no single establishment figure, no party favorite or political machine pick in this race. The Democratic Party hasn't endorsed a candidate. Neither have big-name Eastside politicians such as State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León or U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas. That might help explain why most of the candidates have a similar profile: not-very-well known activists capable of picking up a handful of endorsements and raising a few hundred thousand dollars. And that makes for a rather unpredictable race.

Some of the notable candidates are:

  • Luis Lopez, who first ran for this seat in 2012 and has pretty much been campaigning ever since. Lopez is perhaps the closest thing to a frontrunner; his campaign released a poll last month showing him in the lead, but it's hard to know how seriously to take that claim. He's a Planned Parenthood Los Angeles board member, and his partner, Hans Johnson, is head of the East Area Progressive Democrats, which makes them something of a progressive Democratic activist power couple.

  • Wendy Carrillo, who ran for Congress this summer as a progressive, outsider candidate. Not exactly a bomb-thrower, but bomb thrower–adjacent. Since she lost that race to Gomez, she's gained a powerful ally in Assembly member Cristina Garcia, along with the legislative women's caucus, which Garcia chairs. An immigrant from El Salvador who's made a big issue of protecting DACA recipients, Carrillo also is endorsed by the 700,000-member Service Employees International Union, which is paying for its own independent campaign on behalf of Carrillo.

  • Mike Fong, who sort of looks like an Asian Michael Shannon. Fong is a Community College trustee and the only elected official in the race. He's pushing a plan to make community college free for two years for all California residents.

The second tier of candidates includes Ron Birnbaum, or Dr. Ron Birnbaum (he's a dermatologist, so his story just barely checks out; see update below), as he's calling himself on his fliers, which include a little drawing of a stethoscope (Do dermatologists even use stethoscopes?) and tout his Argentine heritage; Coastal Commissioner Mark Vargas, who once dropped an F-bomb while arguing with a member of the public (L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez has never let him hear the end of it); and Alex De Ocampo, who ran Power Rangers impresario Haim Saban's nonprofit, the Saban Family Foundation. Like Lopez, De Ocampo is gay. Mitchell calls the 51st Assembly District the "gayest Latino district in the state."

De Ocampo, we should note, is the closest thing we have in the race to a hipster, in that he looks as if he's in his early 20s, although he insists he's 38 and says, "I’m not that cool."

Rounding out the ballot are Gabriel Sandoval (who was endorsed by former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan), David Vela, Barbara Torres, Libertarian Andrew Aguero, Peace and Freedom Party member John Prysner and the party-less Patrick Koppula.

Hipsters should note that unless one of the candidates gets more than half the vote, which is highly unlikely, the top two vote-getters will face off in a rematch on Dec. 5. And that, my friends, is the last L.A. election ... of this year.

Update, Sept. 22: Ron Birnbaum's loyal fan base objected to this article's admittedly flippant dismissal of their candidate’s medical credentials. Allow us to make amends: It turns out that Dr. Birnbaum served as a general medical officer in the Navy for a little more than four years. For much of that time, he was deployed in the Middle East. After that, he worked as a primary care doctor at a free clinic in San Pedro. Only then did he become a dermatologist. And not just any dermatologist – he ran the dermatology department at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. While there, he set up the HIV / Dermatology Joint Clinic.

The article did, however, get one thing right about Birnbaum: Dermatologists do not wear stethoscopes. “That’s an affectation of my logo,” the good-natured doctor admits with a laugh.


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