Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes had held elected office just a few short months when she was summoned to the Governor’s Mansion earlier this year. Many lawmakers go their entire career without ever negotiating face to face with Gov. Jerry Brown. And yet there was Cervantes, the Capitol’s youngest legislator—just 29 at the time—squaring off with a governor fifty years her senior.
Brown wanted Cervantes to vote for his plan to increase gas taxes to pay for billions of dollars in road repairs. Cervantes, a Democrat from a Riverside County district long held by Republicans, knew that supporting a tax increase wouldn’t go over well at home—unless she could reap significant benefits for her constituents. So she laid out a wish list of projects to improve freeways, railroad crossings and bridges in her district, and told Brown her cities and parks needed more money, too.
“She wasn’t at all intimidated by the governor or intimidated by the situation,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who was in the Governor’s Mansion as Cervantes met with Brown. “She was there to represent her folks, and it was impressive.”
Cervantes voted for the gas tax. And Brown, through the road-repair bill and later budget actions, approved nearly half a billion dollars for her Inland Empire region—$427 million for transportation projects, $18 million for parks and $16 million for four small cities. It’s an extraordinary amount for any lawmaker to send home, but an especially deft act of leveraging by such an inexperienced politician.
Cervantes’ tactical skills will be put to the test as she faces her first re-election campaign next year, a contest that could decide not only her own future in politics but also the balance of power in Sacramento. Her surprise win last year helped Democrats gain a supermajority in the Legislature. Now Republicans are gearing up to try to take her out.
“It’s going to be one of our top targets,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. “We can’t eliminate the two-thirds majority without picking up that seat. It will be a battleground for both parties.”
The campaign will likely play out as a proxy war over Brown’s transportation deal, with Republicans highlighting Cervantes’ vote to hike gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon and increase vehicle registration fees, and Cervantes working to convince voters that her successful negotiations made the new costs worthwhile.
But far beyond the warehouses and subdivisions of Riverside County, this millennial’s fledgling career offers an interesting example for Democrats who want to win in swing districts. Not one for making fiery speeches or grabbing headlines, Cervantes has demonstrated a nose-to-the-grindstone approach. She helped turn a red district purple through years of work registering Democratic voters. Yet since being elected, she’s broken with her party on some big issues—including environmental and affordable-housing bills—and built alliances across the political spectrum.
A lesbian who is engaged to marry a hospital technician, Cervantes won her upset election in a year when voters sent even fewer women to the Legislature. Not only did she oust an assemblyman who had held office for two terms; she beat a Republican who had the rare support of organized labor. SEIU—the powerful labor union—hadn’t backed a Republican in 20 years when it endorsed then-Assemblyman Eric Linder, pouring more than $200,000 into a campaign to help him. Oil companies, together with unions representing firefighters, police officers, construction workers and prison guards, spent another $1.3 million supporting Cervantes’ Republican opponent.
Cervantes fought back with the help of $1.4 million from the state Democratic Party. Strong turnout by Democrats in a presidential election year combined with Cervantes’ knack for retail politicking helped push her over the top.
She had learned the fundamentals as a toddler, campaigning by her father’s side when he was mayor of the desert city of Coachella. Cervantes remembers going door to door as her dad talked to constituents.
Years later, she put those door-knocking skills to work herself. While studying public policy and political science at the University of California Riverside, Cervantes volunteered on local campaigns. She did a summer internship in the state Capitol and, after graduating, got a job with the Legislature’s Democratic caucuses directing voter registration in the Inland Empire, home to a handful of predominantly Latino swing districts.
“I interacted with a lot of youth who had just turned 18. Their parents couldn’t vote because they’re not citizens, and it was their parents who were pushing their 18-year-old child: ‘I can’t vote. You need to be the voter for our family.’ And so there was a lot of dialogue that would happen all the time at these doors,” said Cervantes, whose own mother emigrated from Mexico as a child.
Another time she encountered an elderly U.S. citizen who had never registered because he didn’t think his vote would make a difference. Slipping between English and Spanish, Cervantes told him about a local race that was won by 14 votes. By the end of their conversation, he filled out his registration card.
“She is a good organizer,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat from a neighboring Riverside County district, who hired Cervantes to manage his district office.
By the time she launched her own campaign, Cervantes had pounded the pavement so much that some voters remembered her as the one who had registered them to vote. In just two years, her district flipped from one where Republicans had a 5-point advantage to one where, today, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3.5 percentage points.
Even so, it’s the narrowest margin of any Democratic-held assembly seat, making it a prime target for Republicans. So far, one—Randy Fox, a pastor who sits on the Corona City Council—has filed papers to possibly run against her, and GOP leaders are scoping out other potential challengers.
“She voted for the gas tax and she’s in a commuter district,” said Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle. “Her negatives are really going to be higher than what most people think.”
Local press have blasted Cervantes and Sen. Richard Roth, a Democrat who represents an overlapping district, for their support of the gas tax. They both negotiated with Brown for projects in their region, a move a Southern California News Group columnist derided as “sell(ing) out the poor and the middle class of California through backroom deals.”
“Roth and/or Cervantes could have shown real courage, but instead both chose to remain pawns of the tax-and-spend political machine of the state,” wrote Sal Rodriguez.
But at least one Inland Empire Republican says Cervantes will have his vote.
“Nobody likes the gas tax… But the gas tax was tied to some things that were very beneficial for our city, and that was because of the negotiation ability of Sabrina,” said Jurupa Valley Mayor Verne Lauritzen, who welcomed Cervantes, Roth and Gov. Brown to his city hall this spring for a ceremonial signing of Roth’s city-funding bill.
“She has proven to be not a party hack, but able to do what is right for the community.”
Cervantes joined Republicans to vote against a bill adding a fee on some real estate transactions to pay for affordable housing, saying it would burden her constituents. And she abstained from voting on an environmental bill extending California’s cap-and-trade program, siding with progressive Democrats who saw it as too friendly to polluting industries.
“She listens to people on all sides,” said Penny Newman, an environmental justice advocate in Cervantes’ district who opposed cap and trade. “She doesn’t do things rashly. She thinks things through and is very deliberate.”
Mary Hughes, a political strategist who runs a group that recruits Democratic women to run for office, said Cervantes’ connection with her community will be her strongest asset going into her first re-election campaign. But no one expects it to be easy.
“The first race after you flip a seat is the race in which they come to take the seat back,” Hughes said. “If she can withstand that, then she will have a lot to teach.”