It has been exactly two weeks since the last election here in Los Angeles, and guess what? There's another one in two more weeks! This one happens to be a special election, and oh what a very special election it will be, with no fewer than 23 candidates all running to replace Xavier Becerra as a United States congressman representing the 34th District, which encompasses downtown L.A., Hancock Park and Highland Park (in other words: a lot of elected officials, power brokers and hipsters).
Why, you may ask, is this special election taking place on April 4, a month after the un-special municipal primary and six weeks before the even less special municipal general election? Because election officials are heartless and cruel. Also, because Becerra refused to resign his post until he was confirmed by the Democratic California Legislature as attorney general.
Of the 23 candidates, one is a Republican, one is a Green Party member, one is a Libertarian and 19 are Democrats. The race is shaping up, in part, as a contest for who can best stand up to Donald Trump. A television ad by Sara Hernandez begins with a shot of Donald Trump and asks, "How do you stand up to a bully?" Alejandra Campoverdi's TV ad ends with the candidate announcing, "If Donald Trump wants to have a conversation about women's bodies, let's start with mine."
"Since Trump was elected, I think a lot of Democrats and progressives feel that they have to do something," says political consultant Mac Zilber, who is neutral in the race (his client John Pérez had been the frontrunner until he dropped out). "More and more people who are not traditional politicians are stepping into the fray. Going to Washington seems like this moral imperative."
The race is also being framed, by some, as a struggle between traditional Democrats and new-school progressives – the Hillary-ites vs. the Berniecrats, if you will. Should a Berniecrat win, it will send shockwaves through the Democratic Party establishment.
"It’s not just about standing up to Donald Trump," says candidate Wendy Carrillo, a journalist and activist who supported Bernie Sanders and spent two months protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. "It’s about ensuring that the Democratic Party has the courage to do the right thing. The fact is that Congress is so disconnected with the realities of people. That is why we’re in this mess to begin with. ... The fact that Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein had to be lobbied to vote 'no' on Jeff Sessions is a problem. The fact that even in this progressive state we had to do that clearly shows a very real disconnect."
Besides Carrillo (whose campaign released a video that was derisively tweeted about by none other than David Duke, a fact the campaign immediately seized upon to raise money), two other candidates are attempting to ride the wave of Bernie-mentum into Washington, D.C. One is Green Party candidate Kenneth Mejia. The other is Arturo Carmona, Sanders' deputy political director during the presidential campaign. As the L.A. Times recently pointed out, voters of the 34th District narrowly backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the primary. But turnout in this special election is expected to be significantly smaller, which could favor a more traditional candidate.
The establishment favorite and presumed frontrunner is State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, who already represents much of the area. He also has raised the most money and has the backing of the state Democratic Party, most of the unions and most elected officials, including Becerra, Mayor Eric Garcetti and basically everyone. A poll taken in February found that Gomez had a healthy 20 percent of support — well ahead of the next candidate, Hernandez. He is the establishment choice and is all but a shoo-in to make the runoff on June 6 (yes, there really is an election every month if you live in this district).
Hernandez, who's raised the second largest amount of money, is a former teacher and former staffer for L.A. City Councilman José Huizar.
The race is noteworthy for its large number of female candidates, including Carrillo, Hernandez, Campoverdi (a Harvard graduate who worked as an assistant to a deputy chief of staff for Barack Obama and was also, at one point, a Maxim model), former school board member Yolie Flores, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory rocket scientist named Tracy Van Houten, and Maria Cabildo, a former planning commissioner, a former chief of staff to L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and the president of a nonprofit affordable-housing developer. Cabildo recently earned the endorsement of the L.A. Times editorial board.
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The dark horse candidate might be Robert Ahn, a soft-spoken, Koreatown-based attorney who served on both the planning commission and the redistricting commission in 2011. As political data nerd extraordinaire Paul Mitchell has pointed out on Twitter, Asian-American voters make up roughly 16 percent of registered voters in the district but have sent in 36 percent – a plurality – of the early vote-by-mail ballots cast thus far. That could signal a strong base of support for Ahn, one of the only Asian-Americans running in a race (and indeed a district) dominated by Latinos.
Though Ahn was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti to two different city commissions, he's still something of an outsider, and he's frustrated at the establishment's rush to first endorse John Pérez and, when Pérez dropped out, to fall in line behind Gomez.
"It’s just musical chairs," he says. "One seat opens and another elected official steps in."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Wendy Carrillo's last name. We regret the error.