Patty Lopez came to Sacramento in 2014 as a complete outsider, disconnected from the political machinery that helps most people win election to the California Legislature.
As a mother of four with little formal education, she had become a local activist pushing for better schools in the San Fernando Valley. Then she ran for the Legislature—financing her campaign by selling tamales and pupusas—and ousted a Democratic assemblyman. Political insiders said voters must have picked her by mistake.
During her first year in office, news stories labeled Lopez a “neophyte” and a “random citizen.” She frequently touted her close connection to “the people,” and criticized political norms like raising money from special interests. But she proved to be a reliable progressive vote in the Democratic caucus, supporting a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Her own legislation was not lofty—one bill gave Californians the right to hang their laundry on clotheslines—but Lopez managed to have 11 bills signed into law.
When legislators run for re-election, they’re usually guaranteed support from the Capitol’s political machine. But when Lopez ran for re-election in 2016, she was trounced by the man she had ousted from office, a well-connected Democrat who had earned the party’s endorsement, enjoyed support from a dozen legislators and raised about 10 times as much money as she had: Raul Bocanegra.
If the name sounds familiar to those outside political circles, it’s likely because of Bocanegra’s recent fall from grace. He resigned in November after several women accused him of harassment and groping. Bocanegra was the first California legislator to step down since women began speaking out about a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct in the male-dominated state Capitol. Since then, a second assemblyman resigned amid allegations of sexual assault, and a state senator went on a leave of absence while lawyers investigate accusations that he harassed female employees. All three deny the allegations.
It adds up to a moment of poetic justice for Lopez, who is now working to win back her seat in a special election this spring.
“She is the unusual candidate who can go back out there and say… ‘I am one of you. I got elected to office, the big machine came and took me out, then look what happened to the big machine,’” said Eric Bauman, chair of the California Democratic Party.
“That’s an interesting narrative.”
But Lopez is by no means a shoo-in. The field is not yet set, and already 10 people have expressed interest in running for the office. At least two of them, Luz Rivas and Yolanda Anguiano, have ties to influential political networks in Los Angeles.
Bauman said he can’t determine who gets the Democratic Party’s endorsement because it’s decided by local party activists. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said he won’t endorse anyone in the race because several Democrats are running and it’s considered a “safe” Democratic seat.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who speaks English with a heavy accent.
The national reckoning over sexual harassment—coming on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s big loss—has created new energy around electing women to all levels of public office. How much that will help Lopez is uncertain. But her race comes amid an unusual opportunity to elect more women to the Legislature—one that likely won’t come around again for another six years.
When she lost to Bocanegra in 2016, the portion of women in the California Legislature dropped to its lowest point since 1998. Due to term limits that allow legislators to remain in office for 12 years, most Assembly seats were expected to remain held by incumbents until at least 2024. But because three assemblymen recently resigned—two following harassment allegations, and a third because of health problems—three seats are suddenly open.
“I have a large sense of urgency to pick up women in those seats,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s women’s caucus and is among a handful of legislators endorsing Lopez. “If I don’t maximize this moment, (women are) going to be at 22 percent until 2024.”
Garcia blamed Lopez’ 2016 loss on a combination of factors, saying Lopez didn’t do enough to build strong alliances in the Legislature, and that in-the-know politicians didn’t do enough to show her the ropes. “There are things we all could have done. There are things she could have done also,” Garcia said. “It’s a two-way.”
Rendon, the Democratic Assembly speaker, pointed out that he donated more than $7,000 to her re-election campaign, and waved off suggestions that he could have done more to help her win.
“We had a lot of political priorities that year. She was one of them, and I’m satisfied with the efforts we made,” he said.
One early blunder Lopez made was keeping sloppy records during her first campaign, which resulted in a $7,500 fine by the state’s political ethics commission—and negative headlines during her re-election effort. The commission found that Lopez didn’t file her 2014 campaign finance statements on time, omitted key information from her disclosure reports and failed to deposit into a campaign account $800 from selling those tamales and pupusas.
Bocanegra, on the other hand, benefitted from more than $1.6 million in super-PAC style spending—from oil companies, realtors, doctors and dentists—that helped him win in 2016. The party endorsement put his name all over slate mailers.
“I found Raul to be someone who was extremely effective,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who supported Bocanegra’s 2016 campaign. He said he had known Bocanegra for years, respected his work to secure a tax credit for the film industry, and had no clue that female staffers would accuse him of harassment. “It was just shocking to me,” said Hertzberg, whose exuberant hugs have generated some controversy of their own, which he chalks up to a political attack.
Lopez said she’s realized the importance of running a professional campaign, and believes she can keep her grassroots supporters while also raising money from interest groups. She’s inviting politicians and lobbyists to a Jan. 31 fundraiser in Sacramento.
“Even though it’s not my style, I’m going to do what I need to do,” Lopez said.
“Before, I was isolated. I didn’t trust many of the people. This time I’m going to focus more on the issues we have in common. I’m coming with an open mind to collaborate with the members.”
Once an outsider, Lopez is now aiming to play the inside game.