When the smoke cleared in June from our state’s first “open” primary, one thing was plain. The LGBT and progressive movements in our state face new challenges to electing candidates who will be long-term leaders for our policy goals.
The new primary system, winnowing the field of candidates for a contested seat to just two, regardless of party, may actually increase, not decrease, the cost of campaigning in our state. This isn’t the only concern for progressives and LGBT activists, whose considerable resources often cannot match those of moderate to conservative business interests in state campaigns. Voters’ approval of Prop 28 modifying term limits to allow 12 years’ service in one chamber may slow the churn of new lawmakers through the legislature and limit the openings for progressive and LGBT candidates. This puts a premium on opportunities to send one of our own to Sacramento.
And it makes the campaign of Luis Lopez, an openly LGBT Latino running for the Assembly from Eastside Los Angeles, all the more significant. Running in the 51st District, spanning the neighborhoods of El Sereno, Eagle Rock, Lincoln Heights, and Silver Lake, Luis is the only new LGBT candidate from L.A. or the Southland to advance to the general election–of the six who initially ran. LGBT people and progressives throughout the region have a stake in helping to ensure he wins on November 6.
In particular, Westside Angelenos need to recognize the importance of LGBT power on the Eastside. The outcome of Prop 8 four years ago, which very narrowly passed in liberal L.A. County on its way to statewide approval, should be a lesson. The road to winning any lasting victories for human rights, especially on statewide ballot measures, goes through L.A.’s Latino electorate.
Luis’s district includes East L.A. and is a cornerstone of the city’s Latino voting base. In 2006 he actually co-founded the statewide organization devoted to mobilizing LGBT Latinos. In 2008, he helped open the No on 8 field office in L.A. for reaching out to Latino voters. Guided and tested by these battles, he is set to lead the drive for equal-rights legislation in Sacramento.
Proven leadership on LGBT rights is only the start of what sets Luis apart. When we talk about progressive candidates who know and truly represent their districts and are more focused on service and results than politics and personal advancement, Luis is exactly what we mean. A native of his district, Luis has worked for a decade in nonprofit healthcare, jumpstarting the Latino Coalition Against AIDS and pushing for inclusive health reform and single payer legislation. Luis’s roots and wide-ranging relationships throughout his district have translated into a huge base of individual donors, accounting for more than 90 percent of his fund-raising dollars. This makes him a progressive advocate impressively independent from the special interests who pull the strings on most candidates.
Campaign price tags are going up, with candidates facing pressure to frontload their money in primaries that are prequels to the general election. In this year’s primary, some races exceeded $2 million and even $3 million, with a few candidates who surpassed $800,000 in fund-raising not even placing in the top two. Again, this dynamic does not bode well for LGBT people or progressives, or candidates like Luis who are both. But yet again, it makes his advance and the promise of his campaign all the more important to both movements.
One side effect of the passage of Prop 28 is reduced vacancies. Breakthroughs for LGBT candidates for the legislature may be fewer and farther between in coming years. With 8 members, California’s caucus of openly LGBT lawmakers is among the largest in the country. But one LGBT lawmaker, Sen. Christine Kehoe, retires this year. And two more, John Perez and Tom Ammiano will be nudged out by term limits in 2014. The caucus could be nearly cut in half.
The class of 2012 is the first to enjoy the chance to stay in one chamber for 12 years. Luis, if victorious, would have the potential to serve for six terms. This equips him to hold leadership roles in the Assembly. Considering his background in presiding over municipal commissions, his adeptness at coalition-building, and his non-reliance on special interest sponsors, Luis is likely to emerge as a respected dealmaker. He also has shown his chops as a mentor and organizer. In him, Angelenos will have a steady, progressive champion in state policy leadership for many years to come. We just need to ensure he gets there.
In this post-Citizens United landscape, special interest dollars loom even larger in state political campaigns, with added temptation for sponsored candidates to move into districts where they don’t have deep roots, much less a readiness to take courageous stands that might miff their funders.
In such a landscape, Luis Lopez represents great promise. A proven grassroots leader and the only new LGBT candidate for the legislature from Southern California to make it to the general election, he needs the help of all LGBT and progressive supporters to ensure he wins on November 6. If we succeed, he will exert the force for change in Sacramento that we so manifestly need and that’s he’s so ready to be.
Rich Gordon, Assemblymember for the 21st District representing parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, chairs the LGBT Caucus of the California legislature. Wallace Albertson of West Hollywood is a former Democratic National Committee member and, as a lifelong LGBT ally, a founding member of the Gay Caucus of the California Democratic Council.