Tomorrow, a small subsection of Angelenos living in the eastern part of the city will head to the polls for the fourth time in four months for one last election, this time to choose a replacement for Xavier Becerra's congressional seat in the 34th District. The runoff, which has a real “six days until retirement” feel about it, features two Democrats: Jimmy Gomez, a state assemblyman and former political director of the California nurses union, and Robert Ahn, an attorney, businessman and city planning commissioner who's never held elected office.
Does it even matter who wins? Should you care? Raph Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., says: yes!
“When you have a supermajority party, for better or for worse, you spend a lot of time thinking about what Democrat it should be,” Sonenshein says. “You have to fight about something. When you’re in a swing state, who’s got the time? But in this state, there’s plenty of time to ask who is the purest of the pure.”
During the primary, much of the analysis centered around whether the district, the majority of which had voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, would send a candidate in the Bernie mold to D.C. But the Berniecrats went bust, and the top two vote-getters, by some distance, were the Democrat establishment favorite, Gomez, and the relatively moderate Ahn, whose victory was helped in no small part by his support within the Korean-American community.
And so the Berniecrats, who'd relentlessly attacked Gomez in the primary for being a tool of the establishment, a Clintonite, a Debbie Wasserman Shultz–ite and so forth, are now lining up to support Gomez over Ahn, who as it turns out was registered as a Republican (gasp!) until 2012. Even the political group launched by Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution, has endorsed Gomez. The assemblyman has also been endorsed by the state Democratic Party, Gov. Jerry Brown, Mayor Eric Garcetti and just about every other elected official in the region.
Who's endorsed Ahn? Uh… former (Republican) Mayor Richard Riordan, former city controller Rick Tuttle and City Councilman David Ryu.
The Ahn campaign is trying to use this endorsement mismatch to their advantage, portraying the race as “insider vs. outsider” and touting Ahn's “private sector” experience.
“Jimmy Gomez is clearly the establishment candidate,” Ahn tells L.A. Weekly. As far as the Berniecrats who've endorsed his opponent, Ahn says: “I’m sure deals were struck. That’s politics today.”
Ahn has tried to pick a fight with Gomez over the gas tax, which Gomez and the rest of the California Legislature voted to raise this year. Ahn says the tax is regressive and will hit low-income people the hardest. Defenders of the tax say it's necessary to fix the roads and highways, as well as being a disincentive to drive.
But perhaps the most pointed difference is that Ahn has expressed a willingness to work with Republicans in Washington on ways to amend the Affordable Care Act. That, to Gomez spokesman Parker Skelton, is “just crazy.”
“His positions are way outside the Democratic mainstream,” Skelton says. “Only by holding strong in Congress have the Democrats been able to protect the ACA.”
Ahn says he would oppose all efforts to eliminate key provisions from Obamacare, such as the one forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. But he defends the idea of working across the aisle.
“As Democrats, we have a numbers problem,” Ahn says. “I don’t know how you can possibly not speak to the other side. I’m not suggesting we compromise our principals. My whole thing is this – if there’s an opportunity to make advancements and improve the quality of life for residents in the 34th Congressional District, I’m going to explore that option.”
Gomez, who finished first in the primary, is considered the favorite. But don't count out Ahn, whose campaign has been heavily targeting the district's Korean-American voters, and apparently has been quite successful. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc, has been dutifully tracking the early vote-by-mail returns and reports an astonishing statistic: More Koreans have voted, so far, than Latinos – despite the fact that Latino registered voters outnumber Korean registered voters more than 8-to-1 (the district was intentionally drawn, by the redistricting commission, to be a Latino majority seat).
Of course, there's no way of knowing what the turnout will be like on Election Day.
“No matter what happens, you have to say Robert Ahn has done an extraordinary job turning out these voters,” Mitchell says. “But we don’t know if that’s enough.”
Update, 1:30 p.m.: Yes, as a few kindly (read: know-it-all) readers have pointed out, if Jimmy Gomez wins this special election, there will be another special election later this year, at some to-be-determined date. And should the winner of that special election be an elected official, there would be another special election to fill that seat. And by then it should be time for the midterm elections. It's the circle. The circle of life.