What Happens When a Random Citizen Becomes a California Legislator?
"I feel like I'm in the place where I can make the difference," says state Assemblywoman Patty Lopez.
Photo by Danny Liao
The Capitol building in Sacramento looks like a toy model of the one in Washington, D.C., and with only about 2,000 employees inside it’s strangely reminiscent of a high school.
As politicians, staffers and lobbyists shuttle down hallways from committee to committee, their heels clicking on marble floors, everyone seems to know everyone, saying hi and exchanging sympathetic looks. Of course there’s backbiting and maneuvering and barbed gossip, but conviviality rules Sacramento. Fist-bumping is especially rampant.
When the day ends at around 5 or 6 p.m., many of them cross L Street and file into a steakhouse/bar called Chops, the de facto capitol clubhouse. On a warm spring night, a quarter of the California Legislature seems to be there. A few gather around a vaguely cordoned-off buffet — a fundraiser, as it happens, that Central Valley Assemblyman Luis Alejo is throwing for his wife, who he hopes will succeed him next year when he’s termed out.
On the patio, recently elected state Sen. Isadore Hall III of South L.A., who is now running for Congress, sits, bowtie undone, puffing on a huge cigar, exuding all the confidence of an NFL quarterback. He shares a table with Assemblyman Tony Thurmond and a few staffers and lobbyists. In walks Travis Allen, a handsome, double-chinned Republican assemblyman from Orange County. He fist-bumps someone and exclaims, “Can you believe this is my first night at Chops all year?”
Many others drop by and trade hugs and quips before moving on — to another fundraiser. They commiserate, they drop hints about future alliances. They unwind.
Shortly before dusk, Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, elected in 2014 to represent the East San Fernando Valley, walks by, a staffer at her side. She doesn’t stop in.
“I’m not part of that,” she explains. “You know, I pass by and say hi to them, and have time and conversation. But that is not my life.”
It’s hard to overstate how much Patty Lopez stands out from her colleagues in the motley California Assembly. First is her accent, which is very thick and seems somehow thicker when she speaks into a microphone. Lopez was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and came to the United States at age 10. Although she has spoken English for decades, it remains very much her second language, and her grammar isn’t always correct.
If the Legislature is high school, Lopez is a foreign exchange student — and not just because of how she speaks. Legislators expect their colleagues to possess certain pedigrees, to have held previous posts as local politicians, staff jobs with legislators or, at the very least, have been part of some political machine.
Lopez is a rarity: a true amateur.
Not long ago, she worked on an assembly line in Valencia, putting together home alarm systems (her husband, Juan, still works there). She has two grown daughters, raised one niece and is raising another. Her involvement in politics was limited to protests and sitting on a few parent committees. When she ran for the state Assembly, it was as an activist trying to raise a few issues, not as a serious contender.
Just how the 46-year-old won office is still being debated: The incumbent she beat, Democrat Raul Bocanegra, didn’t campaign because he thought his re-election was a sure thing; Bocanegra’s Latino loyalists did not turn out in big numbers; the ballot placement led some to believe Bocanegra was a Republican. These explanations are undoubtedly true, yet they somehow don’t seem like enough. It was as if the ground itself had opened up.
And so a bewildered Lopez headed to Sacramento this year, not knowing much about how things work, not knowing what an “unbacked bill” is, or how to sign up to present a bill to a committee so that you needn’t sit around for two hours. Or how many mailers an assembly member is allowed to send to constituents, or even how many days each week she is expected to spend in Sacramento.
“I didn’t know so many days!” she admits with a laugh. “And sometimes, when it’s budget time, I might not be back to the district. I already told my husband and kids, be ready for those days!”
Many of her colleagues don’t take her seriously. Bocanegra is readying for a rematch. His allies are plotting against her. Edwin Ramirez, an activist and friend of Lopez’s for more than 20 years, says she told him, “You get over there, you’re alone.”
Today, in her pristine Sacramento office that smells of springtime flowers, Lopez betrays none of that isolation. She is warm, happy. She feels lucky.
“Honestly?” she says. “It is the dream of my life, even though sometimes it feels overwhelming, like any new person in a different environment. But I feel like I’m in the place where I can make the difference.”
Lopez is proud to have introduced 15 bills this year, a respectable number for a freshman. Most are modest, such as AB 559, which authorized the Department of Fish and Wildlife to take actions to conserve the monarch butterfly and its habitat.
And most, if not all, are “sponsored” bills, laws written heavily or entirely by special interest groups or lobbyists. In fact, although the public is largely unaware of it, the vast majority of California laws is created this way — which is why lobbyists here often are called “the third house.”
Lopez’s bills largely focus on her interest areas of education, child care and immigration. So these interest groups — often nonprofits — have found her receptive.
“She’s probably one of the warmest and most approachable members in the capital,” says Denyne Micheletti, CEO of California Alternative Payment Program Association, who wrote the Lopez-introduced AB 233 to restrict wage garnishment to repay student loans.
Lopez has been working to fit in. “Everybody’s been helping me,” she says. “I have been asking the same questions several times, but I feel really welcome with the speaker, with the members.”
Two of her colleagues have been especially helpful. One is Susan Eggman, who is widely rumored to be running for Assembly Speaker, and therefore eager to pick up stray Democratic votes from colleagues like Lopez.
The other is Lopez’s seatmate, assistant majority floor leader Cristina Garcia, the reformer from Bell Gardens swept into office following scandals in the southeast suburbs of Los Angeles. Garcia has adopted something of a mentor role toward the newcomer.
“She’s feisty,” Garcia says. “I give her advice about hiring people. And sometimes she says no. She asks me questions about process. She’s paying attention a lot to detail. I don’t want a bunch of yes folks around me.”
Others have kept their distance, perhaps out of loyalty to Bocanegra or maybe because they don’t expect Lopez to be around after her first two-year term.
“I don’t think Sacramento knows what to do with her,” says Los Angeles Community College District Board member Steve Veres. “She’s just so unlike anybody else.”
Social life in Sacramento is fueled by gossip. And when Patty Lopez came to town, the rumors about her centered on her revolving cast of advisers and aides. Two Latino Republican friends from back home in L.A., David Hernandez and Ricardo Benitez, were said to have her ear. And Benitez was given a job in Lopez’s East Valley district office.
Not long ago, Patty Lopez worked on an assembly line, putting together home alarm systems. Her husband still does.
Photo by Danny Liao
And then there was Democrat Richard Alarcon, the former state legislator and Los Angeles city councilman convicted of perjury and voter fraud, who rather deftly inserted himself into Lopez’s circle after her surprise election.
“We met numerous times,” Alarcon says. “I helped her raise a little bit of money for her debt. I gave her advice. I wrote a number of memos to her on subjects like high-speed rail.”
This set off alarm bells within the Democratic Party establishment.
“He was calling around telling people he was setting her agenda,” says one Democratic Party insider, who remembers thinking: “This is a story waiting to happen: ‘Convicted felon leading accidental winner around by the nose.’”
Fortunately for everyone, Alarcon stopped advising Lopez in December, when his 51 days of house arrest began.
Lopez’s first chief of staff was Alfonso Sanchez. A somewhat seasoned Sacramento staffer, Sanchez lobbied Lopez for the job. But Sanchez, who declined to comment, clashed with Lopez’s district staff, especially Benitez. Benitez and the others were neighborhood activists, not political professionals. The activists didn’t take Sanchez’s advice seriously, seeing it as coming from a Democratic establishment aligned with the defeated Bocanegra.
Lopez tried to stay neutral but, in the end, sided with the amateurs, firing Sanchez in February. His replacement was from the California Speaker’s office, Lourdes Jimenez. She left after two months.
“I’m not interested in speaking out,” an uncomfortable Jimenez says. “There’s nothing to say. I decided to leave her office. Now I’m in a new office.”
Lopez’s current chief of staff is Jim Leahy, whose last paid job was managing a CVS store. His political experience appears limited to volunteering for a San Fernando City Council race.
In the end, Lopez chose an amateur, much like herself.
“Maybe Patty is going against the norm here,” says Assemblywoman Garcia. “For her, she needs to find that balance. I have to give her a little bit of space. And yeah, I am a little bit worried. But so far she’s been a good Democrat.”
As an activist, Lopez didn’t really stand out. She was one of a couple dozen working Latina mothers in the Northeast San Fernando Valley involved in education and immigration reform. The group is sometimes called the “comadre network.”
Some political consultants attribute to the comadres an almost mythic power to swing elections.
“They have this really extensive network of mothers and parents who’ve been involved,” former San Fernando City Council member Cindy Montañez says. “When I was on the council, it would be 10, 15, 20 women. Now, when I went to an event [Lopez] did, there was easily 150 women there. It was pretty impressive.”
Many of the comadres are religious (most are Catholic, some are evangelical); some are pro-life or harbor reservations about gay marriage, although these are not the issues that energize them. Their faith gives their group a nonpartisan bent, and though they are mostly Democrats they are generally independent of the party machinery.
Lopez became an activist after trying to navigate the public education bureaucracy to make sure her two children and two nieces got into the right LAUSD schools and programs. Eventually, she joined parent committees, including one for bilingual children and another for Title I, which advised on the spending of federal funds for low-income students.
“I was trying to learn,” Lopez says, “not only learn the system but also provide assistance for other parents, so they will learn the system. Simple things — just to read the report card. Sometimes, if you don’t know the language, that can really be hard.”
Educating herself was nearly as important. Lopez began attending classes at LAUSD’s North Valley Occupational Center adult education facility when she was 24 years old. She learned English, earned her high school diploma, took paralegal and computer classes.
She was always politically involved.
“Patty would show up to council and make public comments on a relatively regular basis,” recalls Veres, who once sat on the San Fernando City Council, a body often roiled by controversy. “She was not the most pleasant person.”
In 2012, faced with a massive budget shortfall brought on by the recession, then-LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy proposed eliminating the district’s entire $210 million adult education program. The plan unleashed a torrent of protest from teachers, students and community members.
Lopez took part in those demonstrations and met elected officials, including her state assemblyman, a man for whom she and her kids had volunteered — Raul Bocanegra.
“I sit with him twice in the district,” she recalls. “I say, ‘You know what, can you help us?’” She says her pleas fell on deaf ears. “We didn’t get any support. Nobody do anything.”
The memory of this fractious period brings tears to Lopez’s eyes. The North Valley Occupational Center had given Lopez everything — the ability to speak English, earn a living, become an activist.
Now the powers that be wanted to destroy it.
“People don’t understand,” she says, crying. “You’re affecting so many lives. And [politicians] in these positions feel like they’re running business.”
Deasy and the school board reached a compromise with UTLA, the teachers union, closing only half the adult schools and taking the rest of the cuts by shortening the kids’ school year by 10 days. North Valley Occupational Center survived. But the rancor hung in the air for years, and a number of teachers and students came away galvanized.
Lopez was one of them. She decided to run against Bocanegra. Perhaps it was because he had ignored her years earlier. It hardly mattered which seat she ran for — she didn’t think she would actually win.
“I was mainly running and doing this campaign to raise my issues at this level — education, housing, jobs,” she says. “That’s the issues that are really passionate with me, and I feel like nobody listened, nobody cared.”
Lopez was friends with two perennially losing candidates, Republicans Benitez and Hernandez, the latter of whom had lost eight straight elections (most recently in 2012, against Tony Cárdenas for U.S. Congress). Lopez was following in their footsteps, running in an election to get her name out there and stay active.
“I didn’t see her winning,” says the affable Hernandez, who was Lopez’s first campaign treasurer. “That’s just not in the realm of reality.”
David Hernandez, a longtime friend and Republican, says of Lopez: "I didn't see her winning. That's just not in the realm of reality."
Photo by Danny Liao
For decades, the incestuous world of East San Fernando Valley politics has been dominated by two clans: the House of Alarcon and the House of Padilla.
The first, named after ex-legislator Richard Alarcon, includes the likes of California state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, community college trustee Veres, former California Speaker Fabian Núñez and ex-legislator Montañez. The other includes California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, L.A. City Council members Nury Martinez and Felipe Fuentes and Bocanegra.
From 1996 to 2014, Assembly District 39, which includes North Hollywood, Pacoima, Sunland-Tujunga and the tiny city of San Fernando, was held by a politician from one of these two mostly Latino cliques.
Bocanegra was Fuentes’ chief of staff, Fuentes was Padilla’s chief of staff, Padilla was Alarcon’s campaign manager, and so on.
Bocanegra was every inch a creature of Sacramento. He and his staff were exceedingly well liked, and he was tipped to be the future Speaker of California. So in 2014 he spent his campaign war chest getting fellow Democrats elected.
The biggest law he co-authored expanded tax credits for film and TV production in California. It was a popular bill that got him good press and campaign contributions but did little for working-class Latinos in his district.
“People in Pacoima, Van Nuys, the people here don’t work in the film industry,” says Edwin Ramirez, Lopez’s friend. “We have a lot of Jack-in-the-Box, a lot of low-paying jobs.”
“He’s the only person that has blown me off for a year,” activist Lydia Grant says of Bocanegra. “I could not get an appointment with him. … We have a very tight-knit, very grassroots, connected community in the Northeast Valley. That’s why he lost.“
But none of that hurt Bocanegra in the June 2014 primary. He finished first with more than 62 percent, nearly three times as many votes as Patty Lopez, who narrowly
slipped into the runoff claimed the second spot on the ballot in the November general election. One could hardly blame Bocanegra for thinking the November vote a mere formality.
When Lopez finished nearly 500 votes ahead of Bocanegra, some pointed out that Lopez did especially well in whiter, more Republican areas, where turnout is greater than in Democratic areas in nonpresidential years. Republicans may have simply been registering distaste for Bocanegra, the establishment Democrat.
Others saw Lopez’s win as a fluke caused by the ballot layout.
The 39th Assembly District race appeared on the bottom of page two, below five other races, all pitting a Democrat against a Republican. Candidate order is determined randomly but, by sheer coincidence, this ballot listed the Democrats’ name first in five races. In the sixth race, Lopez, a Democrat, was listed first. Bocanegra, also a Democrat, was listed second.
“In my opinion, there was a base of voters that were going to vote against Bocanegra,” says Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data. “But I think a good number of voters were confused. This result, while it’s a valid election result, isn’t exactly representative of what would been ‘informed voter intent.’”
When asked about his defeat today, Bocanegra says, “You know, I think in total, the voters have spoken. I’ve stopped asking questions.”
He began raising money for the 2016 election — a rematch against Lopez — almost immediately.
There are those within the heavily Latino Northeast Valley who find it embarrassing, perhaps even harmful, to be represented by a political amateur. “The fact appears to be that we’re not getting any representation at all,” says Paul Luna, a San Fernando activist. “She just sort of seems to be taking up space and depleting oxygen up in Sacramento.”
Rosemary Jenkins estimates she made “over 3,000 phone calls” for Bocanegra in 2012. After his resounding primary win, other campaigns asked for Bocanegra volunteers to be “loaned out” to them, which is why Jenkins ended up working on Alex Padilla’s campaign. On Election Night last fall, she was stunned.
“I was like, who’s Patty Lopez?” Jenkins says. “I had never heard of her. I was just in shock. I did some research and I began finding out a lot that discomfited me.”
The “research” includes the fact that Lopez’s English is less than perfect, that she has fired two chiefs of staff and that she is, in the words of Jenkins, “ultra-conservative” and “anti-gay.”
Lopez isn’t shy about her religious beliefs. After she was sworn in, the first press release she issued began, “First and foremost I wish to acknowledge my creator.” She’s friendly with a number of Republicans, and her husband is a Republican.
“Sometimes if you get friends, people in the community [say], ‘Oh, because you are with those people, you’re gonna be that way,’” Lopez says. “No. I’m a strong person.”
When asked about her views on abortion, she sighs. “I’m pro-life. But that is my personal belief. And on the job, I will respect the law. And I believe that women have the right to choose whatever they want to do.”
Somewhat paradoxically, she insists she would vote pro-choice, saying, “I would never impose my beliefs for people.”
As for gay marriage, she says: “I support. I have people, I have friends. And I have family members. Love is love, right?”
Yet others that have spoken with her think otherwise.
“Her personal belief is she doesn’t believe in gay marriage, but she has no animosity toward gays,” says Alarcon.
Perhaps the biggest threat an amateur like Lopez poses to the Democratic Party faithful is her unpredictability. No one seems to know where she stands on the big controversies of the day — vaccinations, high-speed rail, the drought. No one knows if she’ll fall in line.
In April, Jenkins and two others filed three complaints against Lopez with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, along with more than 200 pages of documents — the kind of research often done by an “opposition researcher,” aka a paid political consultant.
Bocanegra admits knowing Jenkins but denies he is connected to her efforts to have Lopez investigated, and he has asked Jenkins to stand down. Some suggest that other financial interests, hoping to get Bocanegra back in office, paid for Jenkins’ research.
“The ‘third house’ talks openly about taking [Lopez] out,” says one Democratic politico, referring to Sacramento’s lobbyist arm. “Very directly. She hasn’t proven herself to be one thing or another. And Raul — they knew what he was.”
In 1990, California voters passed Proposition 140, enacting legislative term limits. One of the ballot arguments read: “Enough is enough! It’s time to put an end to a system that makes incumbents a special class of citizen and pays them a guaranteed annual wage from first election to grave. Let’s restore the form of government envisioned by our Founding Fathers — a government of citizens representing their fellow citizens.”
A government, one might say, of amateurs.
“To a large extent, that’s failed,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “We still do not have a Legislature that’s dominated by the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. We have a Legislature that’s dominated by professional politicians, many of whom have had staff jobs.”
Lopez knows the 2016 election will be far different from 2014. Bocanegra won’t be caught unawares. Which puts the Democratic Party in an awkward position.
Traditionally, the party would defend an incumbent Democrat come hell or high water. But ever since California voters passed Proposition 14 in 2010, creating “open primaries” in which the top two primary vote-getters face off on the final ballot regardless of party, the calculus has shifted.
“The Democratic Party, as a rule, does not eat its own,” says L.A. County Democratic Party chairman Eric Bauman. “We don’t generally engage in Dem-on-Dem primaries when there’s an incumbent.”
But the byzantine endorsement process favors insiders such as Bocanegra, who is expected to get the party’s endorsement.
The question is, will the dozens of Democrats who sit at their own desks around Lopez on the state Assembly floor support her or Bocanegra?
“If and when the caucus ‘green lights’ Bocanegra, [Lopez] is gonna scream bloody murder,” says one Democratic political consultant. “And rightfully so. It’s fucked up. She’s truly representative of a lot of people who haven’t been represented in the capitol.”
That is, there are quite a few Latino immigrants in California, and quite a few speak English as a second language. Lopez is one of the few Sacramento politicians who can relate to that.
There is a sense within the capitol that Lopez is doomed. But Lopez doesn’t feel doomed. Quite the contrary. She never expected to be here, never expected to have an office and a staff and a $97,196 salary and the power to put forth bills that could become laws. When she calls this a dream, she really means it.
“You know, to learn the process inside will benefit the people in the community,” she says, as if it was just another part of her education.
And maybe part of Bocanegra’s education, too: “I feel like this time, if he get elected, he will learn to treat the district right.”
Lopez accepts she may be here for only two years. When Lopez talks about the future, she talks about going back to visit Mexico with her husband and then maybe going to law school, to continue her education.
“Remember,” she says. “I am not a career politician. I feel like a public servant to the community. So after this, I am happy to retire!”
And with that, she laughs, as if she’s made the funniest joke she’s heard all day.
Note: The November general election was mischaracterized as a runoff; it has been corrected above.
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