State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez was elected as Los Angeles’ newest member of Congress on Tuesday, defeating attorney Robert Lee Ahn in a sharply contested battle for the 34th Congressional District.
Gomez will take the seat vacated by Xavier Becerra, who became state attorney general earlier this year, and will represent one of the poorest, most immigrant-heavy districts in the state, where the effects of President Trump’s policies on immigration and healthcare will be acutely felt.
His election continues a decades-old tradition of Democratic Latino representation in the district, which stretches from downtown Los Angeles to Boyle Heights and incorporates Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Koreatown. If Ahn had won, he would have become the second Korean American elected to the House and the first Korean American Democrat.
Shortly before Ahn called to concede, Gomez, 42, thanked hundreds of cheering supporters for their efforts to get him elected to congress and pledged to represent all of his constituents after a hard-fought battle with fellow Democrat Ahn.
“Today, our community said yes to California values, our progressive values,” Gomez said at his election party at his campaign headquarters in Highland Park. “All of you here that helped me on this campaign, we are the resistance.”
The district is majority Latino and had one of the biggest declines in the uninsured population after the passage of Obamacare. Becerra, who held the seat for more than two decades, was regarded as a fierce advocate for immigrants and the poor. He resigned the seat after Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to replace now-Sen. Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general.
Although Gomez and Ahn both said they were running to represent all constituents in the district, it was expected to be a low-turnout election, and the campaigns largely targeted their own bases of support. Gomez bested Ahn for first place in the primary with 25% of the vote to Ahn’s 22%. Gomez’s votes came primarily from the Eastside neighborhoods he’s represented since 2012, and Ahn enjoyed strong support from the west side of the district, which includes Koreatown, Chinatown and downtown.
During the runoff campaign, Ahn spent considerable time and resources registering Korean American voters and sent massive amounts of mail to Asian American voters, while Gomez’s campaign concentrated get-out-the-vote efforts on the Eastside.
With few policy differences between Ahn and Gomez, much of the campaign centered on the candidates’ backgrounds and the approach they would take as part of “the resistance” movement against Trump.
Both are the children of immigrants and talked about their working-class roots. Gomez’s parents are immigrants from Mexico, and his father was in the bracero program for guest workers. They and most of his five siblings lived in the U.S. illegally but became citizens after Gomez was born in the U.S. He’s spoken often about the multiple jobs his parents worked to make ends meet, and the time his childhood bout with pneumonia nearly bankrupted his family.
Ahn’s parents emigrated from South Korea in 1974. His father’s first job was as a graveyard shift baggage handler at Los Angeles International Airport, and his parents ran a hamburger stand at one point. Eventually his family grew their savings into a successful real estate business, which Ahn has been involved in. Aside from working as an attorney, Ahn also served as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Redistricting Commission and the city’s Planning Commission, appointed both times by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
As a political unknown, the 41-year-old Ahn always had the bigger challenge: Gomez already represents more than half the voters in the 34th District and has received dozens of endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Becerra, Garcetti, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Jerry Brown.
Ahn cast Gomez, raised in nearby Riverside, as a carpetbagger and pitched himself as a political outsider who can better represent residents. Ahn was raised mostly on the Westside before his parents moved to the Wilshire neighborhood in his teens. He also tried to capitalize on the anti-establishment fervor that has seized both parties, calling Gomez a “professional politician” funded by special interests.
Gomez responded by touting endorsements from progressive groups and pointing to his record of supporting bills expanding paid family leave and backing single-payer healthcare. Those points could have been key to motivating voters in a district where Democrats make up nearly 60% of voters, and where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential primary.
“If I was so establishment, I don’t think Our Revolution, that was founded and is the political arm of Bernie Sanders, would actually endorse me,” Gomez shot back at a recent debate. “This notion of being a corporate Democrat is just false, it’s silly.”
He also cast Ahn, a former Republican, as too centrist and too willing to negotiate with GOP leaders in Congress.
“In case you haven’t noticed, we have a numbers problem in Congress,” Ahn said at the debate. “Until we’re able to take back the House, we’re going to have to talk to the other side.”
Both candidates said they would battle to protect the Affordable Care Act and fight against deportations that break families apart. Gomez said he would support only comprehensive immigration reform that stops funding for Trump’s proposed border wall and makes permanent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instituted by the Obama administration. Ahn promised he would fight for a “compassionate compromise” on immigration and advocate closing immigrant detention centers.
On Tuesday, there were reports of many precincts without lines, and only several dozen voters before noon at some precincts.
Rick Bolton, 61, said after he voted at an Eastside precinct on Tuesday that he thought the district would be “well-served” by either candidate, but voted for Gomez because he was more familiar with his record. Bolton, a renewable energy executive, felt Gomez’s experience would make him better positioned to become a “national leader,” especially on climate change.
But he also thought it was “exciting” to have another competitive candidate in the race. “It’s great to see L.A. diversify its voter base and its candidates,” he said of Ahn. “We need more of that.”
Huong Nguyen, 34, said she liked Ahn because of his status as a political outsider. “I just wanted to vote against the guy who was backed by the [Democratic] Party,” Nguyen said. Gomez received endorsements from the California Democratic Party and dozens of elected officials in the establishment.
Nguyen, a screenwriter who lives in Koreatown, said she’s skeptical of any one party gaining too much control, and thought it was time for some “moderation and a refresh” in the race. “Anyone who is willing to buck trends and put country above party is who I want.”
There were signs toward the end of the campaign that the race could be tightening. Last weekend, Gomez invited labor icon Dolores Huerta to his Highland Park campaign office to help make phone calls. On Monday, Gomez held a press conference with Huerta and several of his primary opponents, some of whom received as few as 1,000 votes in April.
Garcetti and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León were just two of the Democratic Party heavy-hitters who sent pleas via social media and text message to persuade voters to turn out for Gomez.
And on Saturday, an Ahn campaign volunteer was counting ballots on a clicker as they were dropped into the ballot box at Pio Pico Library in Koreatown, an Ahn stronghold.
In a district where the median household income of residents is about $35,000 a year, more than 75% of the candidates’ money came from outside the district, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records. Large chunks of that came from ZIP Codes in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Beverly Hills, as Gomez raised funds in political power centers and Ahn dipped into wealthy enclaves for cash.
Overall, Ahn raised about $874,000 since entering the race in mid-January, while Gomez received about $961,000. But Ahn loaned himself an additional $490,000, giving him a major cash advantage.
Ahn and Gomez spent little on TV and radio advertisements, focusing instead on mailers and intense ground efforts to get voters to the polls. The mailers sent by both sides to voters contained increasingly negative messages as election day approached.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.
Go to latimes.com/essentialpolitics for continuing updates on the results.
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10:50 p.m.: Updated with Gomez’s victory.
10:25 p.m.: Updated with the fact that the race was too close to call.
8:25 p.m.: Updated with the first round of mail ballot returns.
8 p.m.: Updated with information about polls being closed
6:35 p.m. This story was updated with more details from the polls.
4:00 p.m.: This story was updated with reports from the polls.
This story was originally published at 5 a.m.