Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia: Queenmaker, powerbroker
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia is mere months away from assuming the chairmanship of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
While her ascendancy will need to be formalized with a vote of caucus members after November’s election, the vice chair, which Garcia is, has almost always become chair. The position already wields great power from its bully pulpit, but the bipartisan caucus appears set for a makeover after November sweeps in a large voting bloc of Democratic women to consolidate power in the Assembly.
Exactly how many women is unknown until the votes are counted. But a conservative estimate, based on a CalWatchdog analysis, suggests Democratic women will likely occupy between 16 and 28 seats in the Legislature next session, compared to 19 now.
The biggest gains will be in the Assembly where Democratic women could control at least 25 percent of the votes, with Garcia taking a lead role in the recruitment efforts.
In the four years since being elected — and after surviving a sharp learning curve having come from no background in elected office — the Bell Gardens Democrat rose in stature by focusing largely on ethics and women’s issues, with a knack for forcing to the forefront what she says are taboo topics.
Garcia made recent headlines for calling out a male colleague accused of domestic violence and for championing a bill redefining rape in the aftermath of the controversial sentencing of a former Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman and another eliminating sales tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
Both bills passed the Legislature and await a final decision from Gov. Jerry Brown. But to her, the legislative victories are just as important as the cultural changes.
“I’ve been talking about periods the whole year,” Garcia told CalWatchdog in August over ice cream in Sacramento. “Why does it have to be taboo? It’s women’s health.”
One of Garcia’s biggest goals with the women’s caucus outside of policy will be to build a bench of viable Democratic women candidates, particularly women of color, to compete for governor. There are only 11 women of color in the Legislature at the moment (several of whom are termed out in November), but many of the presumptive newcomers are Latinas.
There’s no reason the first female governor in the state’s history would need to come through the Legislature, but it’s not a bad launch pad. Garcia didn’t dispel the notion she may make a run for governor at some point, but she said she’s satisfied doing what it takes to make a female Democratic governor possible.
“If we don’t have a farm, we’re never going to climb,” Garcia said. “The men aren’t doing it for us, so we have to do it for ourselves.”
The 2018 gubernatorial field is quickly filling with men, so Garcia is looking to future elections to break the glass ceiling. Garcia knows gubernatorial candidates will want the women’s caucus’ support, but it would come with a price.
“I’ll help you now because I want something later,” Garcia said. “And that something is a woman governor after you.”
In 2012, the unassuming math teacher was sent to Sacramento by voters in an underprivileged district in southeastern Los Angeles County — her only prior political experience was forming a community group in response to widespread corruption in Bell Gardens.
In her first primary, she bested a member of a political dynasty, then-former Assemblyman Tom Calderon. After defeating Calderon, she handily beat her Republican opponent in the general election and has run officially unopposed ever since.
Garcia is quick to condemn what she sees as immoral or unethical actions. A few months ago, she was one of the first legislators to demand the resignation of fellow Democratic Assemblyman Roger Hernandez after allegations of domestic violence surfaced.
In 2013, she was the first sitting legislator to speak out and organize protests against Ron Calderon, a sitting senator, calling for his resignation after allegations surfaced the FBI suspected him of bribery. Calderon would later plead guilty to mail fraud, while his brother, Tom (Garcia’s former opponent), pleaded guilty to money laundering.
When the Kevin Sloat lobbying scandal ripped through the Legislature, Garcia responded with a sweeping ethics package. And currently waiting for Gov. Brown’s signature is a measure to overhaul the Central Basin Municipal Water District amid allegations of wrongdoing.
But Garcia has had her own ethical faux pas. During her first run for the Assembly, she claimed she had a Ph.D. when she had only completed coursework. She has since admitted the mistake and will defend her dissertation in December.
Above all, Garcia’s time as chair will be about women and women’s issues, and she’ll have tremendous influence over the legislative focus of the caucus. Her recruitment efforts with the 2016 crop of women candidates will engender a base of loyalists.
Garcia plans to personally push for early childhood education, but rather than having members support the caucus’ agenda, Garcia plans to have the caucus support members’ agendas — hence the emphasis on electing more Democratic women.
Naturally, Democratic women are more likely to stick together than a bipartisan group would. Plus, Republican women in the Legislature will drop from 12 seats to between five and eight.
Garcia understands power in the Legislature is held in numbers — the tighter and larger the voting bloc, the better — and wants to use it to enable women to accomplish their goals.
“We just have to prop each other up,” Garcia said. “Hold our votes together to push our stuff forward, and hold our votes together to hold things hostage when our stuff is not being taken seriously.”
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