Mariel Garza

How a homespun Pacoima campaign upset a confident Assembly incumbent

Chunyan Zhu, right, congratulates Patty Lopez, Democratic candidate for the 39th Assembly District, on Nov. 21 at the Los Angeles elections office as Lopez learned that she was ahead of incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, on her way to an upset victory.
Chunyan Zhu, right, congratulates Patty Lopez, Democratic candidate for the 39th Assembly District, on Nov. 21 at the Los Angeles elections office as Lopez learned that she was ahead of incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, on her way to an upset victory. Los Angeles Times

California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra didn’t have anything to worry about on Election Day.

He had won the primary in June with a whopping 62.5 percent of the vote and raised more than $800,000, and his opponent was a political newcomer who raised campaign funds by selling tamales and pupusas in parking lots.

Things looked bright in Sacramento, too. Though a first-termer, Bocanegra’s political star was rising, and he rode it by focusing on broader issues and making political allies across the state. He was considered a possible Assembly speaker after Toni Atkins.

If he had the confidence in his re-election to spend much of his campaign energy and money on other candidates in tougher races, it was understandable; this was his race to lose on Nov. 4.

And then, stunningly, he did.

Three weeks after the election, this close race was finally called. Bocanegra conceded to fellow Democrat Patty Lopez, who had somehow managed to pull out 466 more votes in a bid to represent the 39th Assembly District in the northeast corner of the sprawling San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. On Monday, she’ll be in Sacramento claiming her seat in Assembly chambers and the office that once belonged to Bocanegra.

The story of how a 46-year-old mother, grandmother and community volunteer with no political experience could turn a homespun, shoestring-budget campaign into a drubbing of a well-connected political player is still reverberating among the state’s political circles. This Cinderella tale has raised a slew of unanswerable questions.

How could such a thing happen? Was it a fluke of ballot position, low turnout or top-two primary? Had Bocanegra spent too much time jockeying for leadership in Sacramento and not working his district? Was the man who lost to Bocanegra in 2012 secretly behind this unknown candidate? Did people vote for her because she was a woman? Or against him because he was an incumbent?

Everyone has a theory. Lopez’s explanation is as likely as any.

“People believe in me,” she told me last week, as the reality of what happened was still sinking in for her and her husband. “They can trust me. I am not a normal politician. I didn’t have big endorsements. I didn’t have money to pay people.”

That’s an understatement. Compared to her opponent, Lopez had no money. Just about $10,000 to spend on her campaign; we don’t know exactly because Lopez didn’t report her campaign finances on time, as is required by law. She chalks it up to a newbie mistake.

Everything was done on the cheap. Her four daughters, who range in age from 11 to 27, worked the phone bank and put up campaign signs. A friend helped her record campaign videos on YouTube, in which she introduced herself and her goals in Spanish. She wants to be an advocate for education in general and adult education in particular, she says.

Lopez worked her campaign hard, 24/7, she said, while still working her real job. She is the paid caregiver for her 87-year-old mother. She’d wake up in the middle of the night with an idea or to promote her campaign on Facebook or Twitter. Friends and family spread the word on their own Facebook accounts.

Bocanegra was knocking on doors, too, but mostly for other people. There’s a picture of him on his Facebook page on the day before Election Day campaigning for Assemblyman Steve Fox, who was trying to hang on to his Antelope Valley seat (he didn’t). The day before that, Bocanegra did double duty, campaigning first in the South Bay for Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, who lost his seat, then in mid-city Los Angeles on behalf of Miguel Santiago, who won his bid to replace his boss, John A. Pérez, in the Assembly.

Bocanegra declined to comment, but his chief of staff, Ben Golombek, said that the campaign consisted of two mailers, phone calls and light precinct walking.

That would have been sufficient in most Assembly races with a well-funded incumbent facing a neophyte. But while Lopez might not have run a campaign before, she’s a natural organizer with deep connections to her community through years of volunteering for schools her daughters attended, local organizations and her church, Santa Rosa Catholic Church. She’s also very likable, warm to strangers and answers genuinely – not like a politician at all. It’s easy to see why people would turn out for that nice Patty Lopez.

When she decided to run, spurred on by the cuts to public education, Lopez tapped into her loyal network of comadres, mothers who share her concerns about educational failures and the lack of response from elected officials. Other current and former political candidates hooked up with her as well, lending their campaign knowledge. They included two Republicans, David Hernandez, who is running for Los Angeles City Council, and Ricardo Benitez, who was running his own uphill Nov. 4 campaign against Bob Hertzberg for a state Senate seat.

Bocanegra was tied into the community, too, but lately at a different level. He spent his career in this district as an aide to the former Los Angeles city councilman for that district, Alex Padilla, now secretary of state-elect, then chief of staff to former Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, now a Los Angeles city councilman.

Probably no one will ever know what tipped this race. But if I were an Assembly person, I would look closely at Lopez’s use of newfangled social media and old-fashioned boot leather.

If there is any lesson here, it could be this: Never take anything for granted in politics.

That goes double for any race in the 39th District. This strange collection of equestrian-centered districts in the foothills, tight-knit Latino working-class neighborhoods and sprawling industrial zones has confounded political prognosticators for at least the last two decades. This isn’t the first time, or even the second or third, that the presumptive frontrunner was inexplicably dethroned in the wilds of Pacoima.

“The only surprise would have been if there was no surprise,” said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist who has run campaigns in this part of the world for years, though not in this race. Close races are standard too, Trujillo said, rattling off a handful of campaigns in the northeast San Fernando Valley that were even tighter than this one.

That means that this might be a one-and-done for Lopez, too.

Follow Mariel Garza on Twitter @marielgarzabee.