The top-two primary system has brought us a slew of intraparty races this fall, which can make it difficult to tell the difference between the two candidates. Berman or Sherman? Butler or Bloom?

A case in point is the Dem-vs.-Dem race for the 51st Assembly District, which stretches from the hipster precincts of Highland Park and Silver Lake down to East L.A.

Luis Lopez, an up-by-his-bootstraps Latino who attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is running against Jimmy Gomez, an up-by-his-bootstraps Latino who attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

How to tell the difference? Well, they both work in the health care sector. Lopez is a government relations guy for AltaMed, a chain of non-profit community health clinics. Gomez is the political director for the United Nurses Associations of California.

That turns out to be the key difference between these guys, and it helps explain why Gomez has pulled out to a significant lead. As UNAC's political director, Gomez has had a lot of influence over the disbursement of the union's political cash.

For starters, Gomez's employer has been his top contributor. The United Nurses Associations of California gave him $15,600 — the legal maximum. That's also the largest contribution UNAC has made to any candidate this cycle.

“It's obvious he's been able to leverage that,” Lopez says. “He's using money from members of his union to advance his own political interests.”

Overall, Gomez has outraised Lopez by about 2-to-1. As of June 30, Gomez had brought in $556,000, to Lopez's $284,000. Gomez also benefited from $106,000 worth of independent expenditures, compared to just $28,000 for Lopez.

Gomez also dominates among endorsements from his would-be peers in the Legislature, with 12 current lawmakers supporting his campaign, to just four for Lopez.

Some of Gomez's money, and many of his endorsements, come from elected officials who have received cash from UNAC. Among those who have received UNAC money and then endorsed Gomez are Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, Congresswoman Janice Hahn, and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

Several candidates for the L.A. Community College District board have received money from UNAC and contributed to Gomez, including Miguel Santiago, Steve Veres and Scott Svonkin.

“He's been giving money to politicians like a drunken sailor,” Lopez

said. “When you do that, obviously you develop a certain influence… If

I had money to give away, you'd see a lot more incumbents and

institutional support from people I'd been giving money away to.”

In an interview with the Weekly, Gomez said that UNAC's board of directors and its executive council have the final say on political contributions.

“My role is more of an advisory role,” he said.

He also said that he had taken steps to distance himself from UNAC's political decision-making process when the campaign began earlier this year. He said he took a leave of absence from the union in April, and returned to work after the June primary. He went on a second leave about a week ago, he said.

“I knew some of these questions would come up,” Gomez said. “I took precautions to separate myself from the political operation of the nurses beginning in January. That way it wouldn't be a conflict of interest.”

Gomez also said he recused himself from UNAC's decision to contribute $15,600 to his own campaign back in June 2011.

“For his endorsement, he had to go through the same process as everyone else,” said Christy McConville, UNAC's spokeswoman.

The contributions should not be a surprise, said Mike Shimpock, Gomez's political consultant.

“They know him, so of course they're going to give money to him,” Shimpock said. “If there's gonna be anyone they have faith in, it's gonna be Jimmy.”

Gomez finished first in the June primary, with 37% of the vote. Lopez narrowly made it to the November runoff, with 25%.

Gomez's campaign recently put out a poll showing him with a 34-23 lead, stretching to 45-32 when voters are told about the candidates' endorsements. Lopez also put out a poll, showing Gomez up 30-24. though the Lopez campaign maintains that when voters are given “positive profiles” and “contrasting messages” (i.e. attacks), the race becomes a tossup — with Lopez taking a very narrow, 40-38 lead.

Lopez has pitched himself as the “homegrown, progressive” candidate. (Lopez grew up in East L.A. and now lives in Eagle Rock. Gomez grew up in Riverside, and now lives in Echo Park.) Lopez is gay, and has the backing of Equality California. Gomez, meanwhile, has the support of the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters — not to mention the Democratic Party.

In early May, UNAC gave $20,000 to the L.A. County Democratic Party. Later that month, the party sent out a mailer, worth about $15,000, urging

support for Gomez. Eric Bauman, the chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, said there was no connection between the two.

“We don't play that way,” Bauman said. “We would do stuff for Jimmy whether UNAC gave us money or didn't give us money.”

As to the state of the race, Bauman gives the advantage to Gomez: “Jimmy probably has the edge because he's a labor guy,” Bauman said. “He clearly has the strongest labor support, and was able to build the strongest Democratic Party support so that he got the endorsement. Luis has a lot of community activists and community leaders.”

Lopez's most notable endorsement is Jackie Goldberg, the liberal ex-lawmaker who used to represent much of the same district.

But it's still hard to find a contrast on the issues.

“I think we're both pretty progressive Democrats,” Gomez said.

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