Democrats leave incumbent assemblywoman high and dry

Patty LopezParties and legislative leaders always protect their incumbents.

Well, maybe not always, as is the case with Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, a pariah in the Democratic Party since she knocked off Raul Bocanegra, a popular incumbent, two years ago. 

Up for re-election in 2016, the party didn’t endorse Lopez (rare for an incumbent absent a scandal), outside interests want nothing to do with her and her Assembly kin are almost nowhere to be found.

But she expects to be back in her office next year, stronger than ever. To her, nothing could be more challenging than her first term.

“I survived,” the thick-accented San Fernando Democrat said with a laugh in a recent interview with CalWatchdog, reflecting on her first term in office. “Believe it or not, the first year was hard.” 

Plagued by inexperience, a lack of connection with many of her colleagues and the loss of her mother, Lopez said the first term was hard just to stay focused. Distractions aside, she managed to author 38 pieces of legislation, 14 of which became law, including one to help conserve Monarch Butterflies and another allowing the use of clotheslines for many residents who want, or need, to save on utility costs.

Her biggest split with the party has been her opposition to high-speed rail, which is set to run straight through her district.

The clothesline bill was emblematic of her primary focus: Constituent services. Lopez reportedly doesn’t spend much time socializing in Sacramento. Instead, she’s at between six to eight community events a week in he district. She keeps only two staffers and an intern in Sacramento, while the large majority of her staff, a dozen or so, stay in her district office where she resolved 312 constituent cases since being in office. 

While all that won’t make her the subject of Robert Caro’s next book, it may be enough for re-election. According to Lopez, it was Bocanegra’s activities outside his district that made voters in his district seek new representation. Instead of campaigning for his own re-election, Bocanegra was on the trail with other candidates trying to help them (media reports suggest Bocanegra was aiming for speaker). 

“I feel like after two years if voters don’t know who you are, they don’t recognize your name, obviously you didn’t spend enough time in the district,” Lopez said of Bocanegra, who was also a one-term Assembly member. “If after two years, if people don’t feel you do anything, they’ll vote for the next person in line.”

Not a politician

Lopez is far from the typical politician. Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Lopez moved to the United States when she was 12. Her mother reportedly didn’t trust the government, so Lopez was not enrolled in school. It wasn’t until her twenties that she got a GED and took English classes. 

Lopez became a citizen in 2000. And while she had a few odd jobs, like working on an assembly line building home security alarms, her experience as an education activist ultimately led her to public office. 

Fearing budget cuts would threaten adult education, and believing Bocanegra, her assemblyman, wasn’t doing anything about it, she challenged him with little money and little support and ended up winning by fewer than 500 votes.

And that’s the short story of how Patty Lopez, who was once adoringly referred to as “The Mexican mom in office,” came to Sacramento.

Bad at fundraising

When a candidate from any party first considers running for office, his or her ability to raise money is the litmus test of viability. The most common criticism of Lopez is that she’s an abysmal fundraiser, something Bocanegra is not.

“Sometimes, they don’t see me as a really strong candidate, because I don’t raise a lot of money,” Lopez said. “I deliver service (to constituents) and I align with the party on major things.”

Democratic Party endorsements are made at the local level, where Bocanegra received 94 percent of the delegate votes in the district. It’s unclear if the party’s concerns were due to Lopez’s viability issue or loyalty to Bocanegra. But according to a party spokesman, the endorsement of a Democratic challenger of a Democratic incumbent is just politics as usual. 

“This race is getting attention because of the top two dynamic but contested Democratic races are nothing new,” said Michael Soller, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party. Soller did provide other examples of the party not backing an incumbent.

“The Democratic Party did her wrong,” said a high-level, Democratic staffer in the Legislature, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “She is everything they are supposed to stand for and they kicked her to the curb — very sad.”


Campaign finance records show that a dozen or so legislators have contributed to Lopez, and she said that Assemblymembers Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton and Adrin Nazarian of Sherman Oaks have offered help on the campaign trail. 

But while both Speaker Anthony Rendon and Majority Floor Leader Ian Calderon endorsed her and contributed to her campaign, neither has attended events with her in the district. 

“This race is a Dem on Dem race where both candidates are good votes for working families and immigrant communities and both have served in the Assembly,” said Rendon spokesman Bill Wong. “That said, the fact that (Rendon) maxed out to her and publicly endorsed her speaks for itself.”  

There’s a difference between endorsing with a max contribution, which doesn’t buy much in the expensive world of campaigns, and going on the trail with a candidate to help raise support and money. And while leadership may have given tepid support, there’s just not a big push to help Lopez stay in office — particularly in an election cycle where the president of the United States endorsed four Democratic legislative candidates.

“I cant remember the Caucus ever leaving an incumbent unprotected like this unless there was a scandal of some sorts,” said Steve Maviglio, a prominent Democratic strategist. “Then again, Bocanegra was a former member.” 

Money talks

Political parties can contribute unlimited amounts to candidates and outside groups can spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures — so the lack of both is significant. 

Rendon can usually direct party funds to incumbents, except party rules prohibit funds from going to candidates who aren’t endorsed by the party. And if money talks, then the outside groups have said loud and clear they want Bocanegra.

According to a MapLight analysis of campaign finance records, outside groups of mostly business interests have spent $350,000 against Lopez and $1.4 million in support of Bocanegra, while only a pro-women’s group spent on her behalf — just $10,000. And this is where fundraising matters most: Lopez has raised only $133,000 this cycle to Bocanegra’s $1.07 million — money that goes to advertising and professional staff.

Lopez, for her part, doesn’t think fundraising is the measure by which she should be judged though. She’s been a good Democrat and a help to her constituents and she thinks that should be enough.

And voters will soon decide if that’s true. 

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