Patty Lopez: The upstart defined

Patty Lopez, a contender in the close-run 39th Assembly District trace, came from obscurity to prominence. (Photo: Lopez staff)

Patty Lopez is more comfortable speaking Spanish, but she’s not afraid to be a voice for her community. That’s why she decided to compete against a well-known, well-connected incumbent for a San Fernando Valley Assembly seat.

Nearly two weeks after Election Day, Lopez and incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra are locked in a race that’s too close to call in the 39th District. The contest is perhaps the single biggest surprise of California’s 2014 general election. Into the weekend, Lopez led Bocanegra by 46 votes out of more than 21,000 cast.

Lopez knocked on doors and conducted a street-level effort and targeted issues familiar to local voters.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect to make it to Sacramento,” says Lopez, who was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and is a volunteer at the L.A. Unified School District. “My campaign was more to be a voice for the people that don’t have a voice, so the people in their [elected] seats would pay attention at the issues that are important to us.”

She hasn’t made it yet, but the battle in the 39th is similar to several other races in the state in which a close race appears to be the result of an overconfident incumbent whose reelection campaign was something less than all-out.

Bocanegra, the chair of the Assembly’s tax committee, led efforts to help California’s film industry — a move that captured widespread attention across the state and marked his crowning achievement in the legislative session. But that did little to energize his own constituents — a development that the unknown Lopez exploited.

Lopez knocked on doors and conducted a street-level effort and targeted issues familiar to local voters.

Lopez pointed to the lack of adult education services, spurred by state government’s cutbacks in the post-recession years and the shifting of fiscal control to the locals. According to Los Angeles Unified’s Division of Adult and Career Education (DACE), more than 50 percent of the district’s adult education budget was cut in that time.

Before she hit the campaign trail, Lopez worked at an adult school called the North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills.

“For the last three years… even before Mr. Bocanegra was in the seat,  in our area they closed 20 schools,” Lopez said. LAUSD reports that in the 2003-04 fiscal year, the district had 35 adult education centers.

Now, there are 10. “Those are schools that are really vital for our community,” she said.

Before she hit the campaign trail, Lopez worked at an adult school called the North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills.

Lopez herself speaks English as a second language and she knows firsthand the value adult schools bring to areas with excessive high school drop out rates and large immigrant communities.

“Those schools give opportunity for the kids who are behind in credits so they can finish their school, so they can get a high school diploma on time,” Lopez said. “… he (Bocanegra) is only focusing on the film industry, which is great and I agree and I will support it too, but it’s not in Pacoima, not in Sylmar, not in San Fernando that will help us to improve the quality of life that we have right now.”

The success of her grassroots campaign caught everybody, including Lopez, by surprise.

Bocanegra’s confidence coming out of the primary and his  helping other Democrats y were factors in the challenge he now faces.

She spent nearly no money on her campaign, she had no campaign committee and her lack of experience even caused her to be fined $400 by the state’s Fair Political Practices Committee for not properly reporting her finances. By one estimate, her campaign cost a total of about $10,000.

Bocanegra, meanwhile, raised more than $600,000 for his reelection, and beat Lopez in the June primary by nearly 40 points.

But she appeared on the November ballot because under California’s “top-two” system, the top vote-getters in the primary square off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Lopez and Bocanegra are both Democrats.

Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge, said Lopez giving Bocanegra a run for his money is, “just as big of a head scratcher as I can remember,” but he added that the number of votes separating them “is so small of a margin that that could easily change.”

Hogen-Esch said Bocanegra’s confidence coming out of the primary and his decision to redeploy resources to help other – presumably more vulnerable – Democrats in the Assembly were factors in the challenge he now faces.

“There’s a bit of a horse trading going on with resources in these campaigns,” said Hogen-Esch, who had several students intern for various campaigns this year, including Bocanegra’s.

“(Interns are) literally taken out of an office from answering phones or whatever else they’re doing for the internship and they are going to events to help another candidate who they are not interning for,” Hogen-Esch said. “And honestly, I’ve wanted to step in and say to the students they shouldn’t be doing this. You’re doing an internship with Bocanegra, not somebody else.”

Other factors that were working against Bocanegra include a historically low voter turnout, a top-two primary pitting him against a fellow Latino Democrat and, possibly, his name following Lopez’s on the ballot.

Elections results won’t be certified by the Secretary of State’s office until December 12th and Bocagengra’s campaign is confident they can close that single digit vote gap.

They would not comment on whether they’d seek a recount in the event he loses.

“Right now, we’re focused on sort of the task at hand,” said Bocanegra’s campaign spokesman Pat Dennis. “We’re focused on the process right now. It takes the counties about a month after elections to count the votes.”

Even if she doesn’t maintain her lead and ultimately loses this race in her first ever effort seeking public office, Lopez says she is happy with what she’s accomplished.

“I already won my campaign, because whether I get the seat or not I already completed my mission to create an emergency call that they should pay more attention to the people,” she said.

“When we send letters to them, or make an appointment with them, I have several people that have big issues and they’ve never heard a response. [Elected officials] should respond to the people out of courtesy, they should have people there taking care of the needs for the community,” she said. “That’s what this guy was elected for”





Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: