Nobody saw Patty Lopez coming.
The 39th District’s new Assembly member achieved the greatest California campaign upset of 2014.
She toppled Raul Bocanegra, a Democratic incumbent who harbored leadership aspirations, boasts formidable political allies and last cycle piled up political capital by bestowing over $400,000 of the $1.2 million he raised on fellow Democrats and party committees.
Lopez’s latest political finance report lists $16,647 in money raised. She was fined for filing campaign statements late.
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The improbable victory in a low-turnout election, following an under-the-radar campaign, has Lopez under a magnifying glass at the Capitol. Just weeks into the legislative session, she’s facing questions from other Democrats about her readiness for the job and her adherence to core party principles.
Even among 26 other freshman Assembly members, Lopez, who is 47, stands out for her lack of formal political experience. The next two years will test a novice politician who touts her community roots and independence from the Democratic political establishment whose chosen candidate, Bocanegra, has begun laying the groundwork to unseat Lopez in 2016.
“Hopefully, (I’m) giving hope to the people if they didn’t believe in their government before. Like me, people don’t need to have money and power to make it right for the people,” Lopez said.
“Nobody gave me anything, I owe nobody nothing, so I’m here and my vote is 100 percent to the people,” she added. “I’m controversial because I will stand for the people.”
From the time Lopez took office, Bocanegra’s supporters have continued to question her credentials. They say her staff is inexperienced and note that her inner circle of advisers includes Republicans.
“There’s been such a huge difference in the level of service and people calling the office and not having the same level of constituent services and not having an Assembly member who’s up to speed on all the issues facing the state,” said Josh Pulliam, a professional consultant who worked for Bocanegra’s campaign.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, who shares a desk with Lopez and is helping to instruct her on the ways of Sacramento, said the criticism is unwarranted.
“No one knows her, so everyone wants to paint caricatures,” Garcia said. “They’re already painting this picture of somehow she is not supposed to be here. It was never about, ‘Well, what did the incumbent do to lose this seat?’ It was always about, ‘She shouldn’t be here,’ which isn’t fair.”
Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Lopez moved to the United States at age 12 and won her U.S. citizenship in 2000, an immigrant background evident in her accented English. Her parents did not enroll her in school – “they didn’t trust the government,” Lopez said – choosing instead to have a retired neighbor educate her at home.
“It was not formal education,” Lopez said.
She married young, earned a high school equivalency certificate and, at the age of 25, took her first English class. She settled in San Fernando in Los Angeles County, where residents describe a small-town atmosphere. She raised four children and became an activist for better schools.
Education guides Lopez’s political compass. She promoted adult education while working for the North Valley Occupational Center, an adult school, and she led a parents group that worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to rejuvenate failing schools. She rallied for education funding to stave off school closures.
Her effectiveness as a community organizer flowed from the relationships she forged with residents, according to Antonio Plascencia, an LAUSD program adviser who worked with Lopez’s group to get parents involved in underperforming schools.
“I think that Patty Lopez has a grass-roots relationship with the area,” Plascencia said. “Patty Lopez got involved not because of a position as someone who’s a political elected official, but rather because she was a natural parent organizer.”
Ailing schools were not the only factor motivating Lopez to engage in civic life. Local politics in San Fernando have been marked in recent years by popular uprisings against perceived corruption. Four City Council members lost their jobs in two different recall elections since 2009, and a fifth resigned. The recalls were fueled by allegations of fiscal mismanagement and, in 2012, lurid sex scandals.
City employees and people involved in the recalls remember Lopez regularly attending council meetings and urging a change.
“She did have the will to stand up in some of our council meetings and basically talk back to the powers that be,” said Julian Ruelas, a developer who helped lead the 2012 recall campaign.
Still, Lopez said she became convinced that state politics offered the best route to aid local schools.
“I said, you know what? If Sacramento is the reason we are not receiving the funds, I have to do something about it,” Lopez said. “I never thought to be in the political arena, never cared about holding an elected (position), but I see people in that position have a lot of impact in our communities.”
On issues beyond local schools, Lopez is less knowledgeable. Asked in an interview about a landmark court ruling last year invalidating California’s teacher employment laws as overly restrictive, Lopez said she was unfamiliar with the process for firing teachers. She supported changing California’s controversial cap-and-trade program but said she had no specific proposals.
“She is not well-informed on a lot of issues,” said Paul Luna, a retired construction supervisor who is a regular attendee at San Fernando City Council meetings and supported Bocanegra. “She’s been an education advocate for quite a while, but that’s just about it.”
Her stances on many issues remain a mystery to interest groups that typically assess candidates with interviews and questionnaires.
“We are definitely going to be watching her closely, because we don’t have a super clear sense of where she is” on issues of abortion access, said Dinah Stephens of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, noting that Lopez did not return an election questionnaire but expressed support for sex education and preventive care during a conversation last week.
Lopez told The Sacramento Bee that “I believe in life” but “will respect the law that’s in place.”
Her associations with Republicans also give some fellow Democrats pause.
Among Lopez’s aides is Ricardo Benitez, a Republican who in 2014 ran for state Senate and lost in a general election landslide to Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. Her former campaign treasurer, David Hernandez, is a registered Republican who has spoken out against illegal immigration and attended tea-party rallies.
Hernandez, who said he still advises Lopez on developments in the district, said her grass-roots message transcended partisan politics.
“We’re individuals who have been working on similar projects within our community, and all of a sudden the fact that we’re of different parties is being held against us,” Hernandez said. “I don’t necessarily agree with her 100 percent on everything, but I don’t agree with my wife 100 percent of the time, and we’re still married.”
Bocanegra has made no secret of his intention to return to the Legislature, opening a campaign committee for 2016 and saying in an interview that he “absolutely” plans to run.
“People are encouraging me to run, because they’re seeing that they’re not going to get strong representation,” Bocanegra said.
The dynamic has strengthened the resolve of Lopez supporters, who cast her as an alternative to a Democratic power structure that has become disconnected from its constituents.
“Raul Bocanegra, he’s handled by the political machine: big interests, corporations. He was not really open to the community,” said Renato Lira, who volunteered on the campaign. Lopez “has barely started putting bills on the floor,” he added. “People need to give her an opportunity. They need to give her that.”
Critics have been too quick to take sides, said Assemblywoman Garcia, noting that her own path from community activist to state lawmaker involved a steep learning curve.
If Lopez succeeds in passing meaningful legislation – not to mention getting re-elected – she will send a powerful message to people living in communities where Sacramento seems remote and voter apathy is endemic, Garcia said.
“If people started hearing that in my community and seeing that, then they’re like, ‘You know what? There’s a chance government is for me,’” Garcia said. “It’s not just for folks who went to college. It’s not just for folks who are staffers or who are in that machine. It can be for anyone.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.
Birthplace: Michoacán, Mexico
Residence: San Fernando
Education: GED, San Fernando High School
Experience: Community representative, North Valley Occupational Center; parent education activist; education commissioner, city of San Fernando
Communities represented: Pacoima, San Fernando, Arleta, Mission Hills, Sylmar, North Hollywood, Lake View Terrace, Los Angeles, Northeast Granada Hills, Sunland-Tujunga, Sun Valley