Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Accidental politician faces test

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, at left, is sworn in on Dec. 1, 2014, at the Capitol after unexpectedly defeating an incumbent assemblyman and fellow Democrat, Raul Bocanegra.
Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, at left, is sworn in on Dec. 1, 2014, at the Capitol after unexpectedly defeating an incumbent assemblyman and fellow Democrat, Raul Bocanegra. hamezcua@sacbee.com

They are out to get Patty Lopez, a first-term Democratic assemblywoman.

“They” is a tightly knit group of professional Latino politicians who’ve dominated the northeastern corner of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley for years, helping each other climb the political ladder.

Lopez upset the clique two years ago by defeating Raul Bocanegra, who had taken his re-election to a second term for granted and devoted his time and money to other politicians’ campaigns in hopes of moving up in the Assembly’s leadership.

In a way, Bocanegra’s overconfidence was understandable, since he had captured nearly two-thirds of the primary vote, easily topping Lopez, a little-known community activist, and two other minor candidates.

However, under the state’s still-new “top two” primary system, he had to face Lopez, who had gotten nearly a quarter of the primary vote, for a second time in the general election.

While Bocanegra was off earning brownie points by helping other politicians win their elections (he was considered a potential candidate for Assembly speaker), Lopez ran a do-it-yourself campaign and edged Bocanegra by just 466 votes.

“People believe in me,” she said after winning. “They can trust me. I am not a normal politician.”

Bocanegra and his pals, including Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Congressman Tony Cardenas, were embarrassed by his paper-thin loss to an inexperienced interloper whose supporters sold tamales to raise campaign money.

Bocanegra supporters immediately began demanding that Lopez resign and filed allegations of financial irregularities – including failure to report a few hundred dollars in campaign cash from her tamale sale. Eventually, she agreed to pay a $7,500 fine to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

The minor campaign fund transgressions demonstrated Lopez’s unfamiliarity with the rules and rituals of politics – a trait that has also marked her time in the Assembly. She’s introduced 33 bills, but just five have been enacted and Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed one of them, dealing with immunization. Twenty-four of her bills never got out of the Assembly.

Lopez knows Bocanegra is coming after her this year. He’s obtained an endorsement from the state Democratic Party, which denies her some campaign financing from party sources, although the new Assembly speaker, Anthony Rendon, has personally donated to her campaign and says he supports her re-election.

Lopez seems to take the challenge calmly. “I feel the (party) is not ready for a person like me … that’s never been in the political process before,” she said in an interview last week. “I don’t take it personally.”

As Lopez sees it, college-educated Latino politicians such as Bocanegra have lost touch with “a new generation of immigrants like me who don’t speak perfect English” and are most interested in bread-and-butter issues. A shutdown of adult education in her district, she says, was a major motivation for her to run in 2014.

Despite the challenge, she says she’ll run like she did in 2014, managing her own low-budget campaign. And if she loses, “I can be with my family and enjoy my life.”

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