It was a double celebration for Patty Lopez on Sunday, Jan. 25. She was celebrating 29 years of marriage to her husband Juan Lopez and at the same time had a local swearing-in ceremony as a state Assemblymember, representing the 39th District.
The ceremony took place at Brand Park in Mission Hills, which she chose because “it is history, it means immigrants and respect,” said Lopez, whose victory over incumbent Raul Bocanegra in the November election surprised everyone. Around 100 people attended the event, including Lopez’ family and supporters.
A former community activist with no previous political office experience, Lopez — one of five Latina assembly members and the only immigrant — has been learning the way in Sacramento,
“I thought it was going to be more difficult,” Lopez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol during an interview before being sworn in. “But the response from my colleagues has been very cordial and helpful, even though the (Democratic) party did not support me.”
Indeed, Lopez financed her campaign with savings and small donations from friends, relatives and her supporters. The Democratic Party had bankrolled Bocanegra, who everyone thought would have an easy re-election campaign only to be beaten by about 467 votes, shocking the political establishment.
She said she’s been in training in Sacramento, learning how the process works and trying to get used to traveling back and forth.
Many of her colleagues, she admitted, thought she couldn’t speak English.
“I speak with an accent, but after 35 years in this country I speak English,” Lopez said.
Other than that, the treatment has been fair, she conceded.
“I haven’t felt like a diva or a victim. I fight for what I want and I’m trying to get up to par with the rest because I have to give my best to help my community,” Lopez said.
One of the people helping her is fellow Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who administered the oath of office to Lopez at the Sunday ceremony.
Much like Lopez, Garcia was a community activist who won a seat in a surprising victory in the 58th district.
“We (Lopez and her) saw a problem and ran for office,” said Garcia, who considered Lopez a “unique voice” that needs to be heard.
“My party and I are committed to Patty’s success,” Garcia added.
For many of those present at the swearing-in ceremony this was a victory shared with Lopez, especially for Carolina Perez, her friend and confidant for 20 years whom she calls “her warrior.”
Perez said Lopez’ victory last November is “the American Dream of being in Sacramento fighting for the community,” and that the Assemblymember is “a strong woman” and “well prepared for the task ahead.”
But Lopez’ English skills are not the only questions she’s faced.
Recently, Lopez made headlines when she fired Chief of Staff Alfonso Sanchez less than a month after he was hired.
Lopez said that she interviewed more than 20 people for the position, and Sanchez seemed to have the proper qualifications even though other candidates had more experience.
“You have expectations and those expectations were not met,” she said.
Lopez has since hired Lourdes Jimenez to be chief of staff. She has a long career of serving with other politicians in Sacramento.
Something else that brought strong comments from the Democratic Party was Lopez’ hiring of Ricardo Benitez — a Republican — as a field representative, and her work with David Hernandez, an anti-immigrant Minutemen supporter with Tea Party leanings.
“He (Benitez) knows the community very well, having been part of the Sylmar Neighborhood Council for several years. Regardless of his political affiliation, he has helped the community,” Lopez said.
With regards to Hernandez, Lopez emphasized he is not part of her staff or political advisor. But, Lopez admitted, she and Hernandez do collaborate.
“I will work with everybody regardless of party affiliation, race or political ideology,” she said.
She also noted that “I’m not anti-immigrant. I participate in all Cesar Chavez events.”
While Cesar Chavez worked on behalf of farm workers, he was not an immigrant. He was born in Yuma, Arizona.
And then there’s her advocacy in favor of U.S. Marine Andrew Tahmooressi, who was arrested after he entered Tijuana, Mexico with three loaded weapons and ammunition in his car. Tahmooressi was freed late last year after nearly a year in jail.
Tahmooressi said he took a wrong turn on a California freeway that funneled him into Mexico with no way to turn back. Mexican authorities claimed he was trying to sell the weapons. His detention brought in a media storm, particularly from pro-gun proponents and veteran groups, with right-wing media darlings like Rush Limbaugh advocating for his release.
“I did not think it was fair to treat someone who had risked his life for our country to be treated that way for a confusion,” said Lopez, who added she traveled the same way Tahmooressi did heading to Tijuana and saw how he could have made a wrong turn.
She went to the Mexican Embassy in Tijuana to plead on his behalf. Lopez said she empathized with the Marine’s mother.
“As a mother I thought that, if I was in her same situation, I would want someone to help me,” she said.
Another issue that is currently raising many questions is the proposed High- Speed Rail route in both the East Valley and the Northeast San Fernando Valley, both areas that Lopez represents.
One plan in the East Valley, known as the East Corridor, goes through Lake View Terrace, Hansen Dam, Kagel Canyon and through the Angeles National Forest. Another plan, called the SR 14 Corridor, cuts through the Northeast San Fernando Valley, including communities like Sun Valley, Pacoima and San Fernando — where Lopez lives — and Sylmar, before going through the foothills.
Ricardo Benitez, as Lopez’ field representative, announced to a crowd that numbered 1,400 people during a meeting at the All Nations Church in Lake View Terrace that Lopez did not support putting the high-speed rail through the East Corridor, and supported putting it through SR 14.
Benitez was confronted by the leaders of Pacoima Neighborhood Watch during their Jan. 21 meeting on the issue. Benitez stammered, and said he was there to say “hello” and not to comment on the issue. Following the announcement by Benitez at the All Nations Church, Lopez’ office issued a statement saying that she hadn’t taken a position.
Lopez said she will soon make her official position on this matter known, but indicated she supports the decision of the majority of the community in this regard.
“Whatever they decide, I will be with the people,” she noted.
Despite having recently arrived in Sacramento, Lopez said she’s already working on various measures to help her community.
One of the bills she’s championing would benefit adult schools. Another one advocates for special needs children, and one more would create assistance centers in college and universities for “Dreamers” — undocumented students.
“I’m a woman of vision and mission,” Lopez said. “It’s a lot easier when you know where you’re going and why you’re doing it.”