It’s been more than 20 years since a Republican candidate has substantially challenged a Democratic candidate in the 39th Assembly District since Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1 in registered voters (53 percent to 15 percent).
But candidates from both parties will face each other in the runoff election on June 5.
Democrat Luz Rivas won 41.89 percent of the vote (6,059) in the special election Tuesday, April 3, to replace Raul Bocanegra, who resigned last November amidst a sexual harassment scandal.
But Rivas was not able to get more than 50 percent of the votes cast in the election, and will now face second place finisher Ricardo Benitez, a Republican who received 21.9 percent of the vote (3,180).
Whoever is elected will serve the remainder of Bocanegra’s unfinished two-year term, which ends Dec. 3. The district includes North Hollywood, Mission Hills, Sylmar, Arleta and Lake View Terrace.
To say Benitez — a former Patty Lopez confidante who worked for the former Assemblymember during her term in Sacramento — has caused another big political surprise is an understatement.
Rivas was backed by powerful politicians including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Congressman Tony Cardenas, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. She had raised $227,685 for the race and blanketed constituents with a barrage of fliers.
Benitez was the only Republican among the six candidates running for the seat. He previously did not disclose how much money he raised, if any, and was not even considered a viable challenger. Everyone expected another Democrat, Antonio Sanchez, would challenge Rivas. Sanchez had raised $344,009 — mostly from an array of unions – but only managed to get 18.77 percent of the vote (2,708) and finished third.
Lopez, who held the 39th District seat from 2014-2016 and had name recognition, received only 9.89 percent of the vote (1,431).
Other candidates included Yolie Anguiano and Patrea Patrick, who received 5 percent and 2.40 percent of the vote, respectively.
Glad to be in the Top Two
Rivas, celebrating her win at Magaly’s Tamales in San Fernando said she was happy to have finished on top and to be in the runoff. The MIT and Harvard-trained engineer said that from the start, she knew the special election would be difficult and expected a runoff.
Cardenas and Padilla both attended the victory party.
While her supporters happily watched her leading in the votes throughout the night, she was not able to secure that 50 percent-plus 1 vote majority that she needed to avoid a runoff.
“I’m ready for the next round. We’re going to make it on June 5. We’re going to work harder,” she said.
“It looks good because everyone here did something to make it look good,” she told her supporters and her politician backers. She noted that she put her campaign team together only two months ago, but thanked them all.
“My team worked hard every day, knocked on doors, gave voters rides to the polls today,” said the former LA city public works commissioner.
She said she decided to run because, “My community was not being represented in Sacramento. And I thought, if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? And I couldn’t think of anybody who was better,” Rivas said.
“I want to be the next assemblywoman from this district,” added Rivas who founded DIY [Do It Yourself] Girls, a Pacoima-based nonprofit that promotes science and technology education for fourth to 12th graders.
According to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RR/CC), only 14,596 people participated in the special election – a dismal 6.45 percent turnout.
That meant that every vote really counted tremendously and that may have helped Benitez, who received a strong backing of the existing Republican voters in the district.
Benitez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that his second place finish was due to his hard campaign work.
“This was a strong contest with a lot of effort, fight and work. I’ve worked hard for this. Because of that I had the opportunity to advance to the runoff,” he noted.
He added that his only investment in the campaign were $2,500 and “a pair of shoes I bought at DSW in San Fernando.”
“I did my campaign with that,” he said. “You don’t need to spend all this money of the people who pay taxes because in the end, we’re the ones who end up paying for the campaigns.”
He added that “people are tired of the corruption, of people coming over just so they can run in the district and they’re lying to our humble people.”
If elected on June 5, Benitez said his priorities would be jobs and security.
Benitez gave credit not only to Republicans who supported him, but also “the people.”
In a video on his Facebook page, Benitez said that he wants to “fight to create good manufacturing jobs that power our 39th district and Valley economy.”
“Manufacturing is still the backbone of the Valley,” he said. “This is my powerful idea for the economy: better business climate for manufacturers, protect small business from regulations, more funds for education and training and train students for the best paying jobs of tomorrow.”
The District’s Rocky History
Following Bocanegra’s departure, the office was staffed with only one person Gerardo “Jerry” Guzman, husband of LA Councilmember Nury Martinez. But Guzman was fired after an Asssembly investigation substantiated sexual harassment claims against him and Bocanegra.
Guzman was a strong supporter of Rivas and worked on her campaign. Following his firing, Rivas said she cut ties with Guzman.
The district has not had representation since Bocanegra resigned. This election isn’t the first time the district has had a political surprise.
Patty Lopez, a political outsider disconnected from the Northeast Valley’s political machine, sent shockwaves when she caught Bocanegra asleep at the wheel and beat him in 2014.
Bocanegra then utilized deep pockets — including donations from oil companies — and spent thousands of dollars on negative television campaign ads to oppose Lopez. He easily recaptured the seat in 2016.
Following Bocanegra’s resignation, Lopez tried again, but was again deluged with a slew of damaging hit pieces she believes was orchestrated by the same political machine that she said has had a stronghold over the Northeast Valley.
“They wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be returning to Sacramento,” said another elected official who asked not to be identified. “They didn’t want her back there.”
By the way, the political contest for this district is not over.
These candidates may appear twice on the June 5 ballot: once to complete the expiring term, and again in the primary election (which will include more candidates) for the next two-year term beginning in 2019.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in June, the two with the most votes will advance to a runoff election in November.
Diana Martinez contributed to this story.