GUEST COMMENTARY - Elections can make for surprises and sweet victories. For Democrats, this year’s end brings relief we defied the trend of the party holding the White House often losing dozens of seats and control in both chambers of Congress. Last month, Democrats kept the Senate and gained one seat. Losses in the U.S. House were just a dribble, not the wave Republicans wrongly predicted.
Close to home in Eastside and Northeast Los Angeles, the outcome in our 34th Congressional District contest between incumbent Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez and openly gay immigrant-rights attorney David Kim does not fit the national framework. What to make of this hard-fought battle between two Democrats?
In California’s 52 runoff elections for Congress this year, held under the top-two system we adopted one decade ago, only 6 Democrats faced Democratic challengers. In these contests, Rep. Jimmy Gomez fared the worst of any of the four incumbents, garnering just 51 percent of the vote, a mere 3,000 votes more than his Korean-American challenger.
Compare this with the outcome in the adjacent 30th Congressional District, where Rep. Adam Schiff, also an incumbent, garnered more than 71 percent of the vote over his Democratic challenger who, by coincidence, like Kim against Gomez, also challenged Schiff for a second time.
It is well known that incumbent lawmakers enjoy influence over legislation that translates into robust fund-raising from monied interests seeking access and favors. This often allows office-holders in Congress to coast to reelection time and again on the strength of huge campaign treasuries. Rep. Gomez raised nearly $2 million, to Kim’s $261,000, and outspent the challenger by a ratio of seven to one. While Rep. Gomez was re-elected, it was a very close call.
The question we grapple with is this: Why does Rep. Jimmy Gomez, despite the tremendous financial advantages of incumbency, struggle to win and resort to desperate attack ads suggestive of someone fighting like hell for his political life?
Public education and a review of recent contests for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board offer insights. But first, let’s take a look at the backdrop involving public investment in cornerstone public institutions, including public schools, and the positions staked out by our two major parties.
At the national level, Republicans are openly salivating at elimination of Social Security, slashing if not eradicating Medicare, undercutting the U.S. Postal Service, and gutting safety-net services such as unemployment benefits, housing subsidies, winter heating assistance, and even food-bank funding. Democrats, on the other hand, vow to protect and defend these vital public lifelines and programs. In so doing, they underscore a key Democratic value that starkly contrasts with Republicans: Government has a core obligation—in fact an unshakable duty—to provide essential public services to all Americans. This includes public education and the critically important responsibility our public schools play to ensure that we can have an educated populace, a well-trained workforce, and a strong democracy.
As Democrats, we embrace with principle and passion this vision of what our government should do for ordinary people: Provide healthcare, reliable services like the U.S. Mail, Social Security for seniors, orphans, and people with disabilities, and, yes, high-quality public education. This is why we find Jimmy Gomez’ actions in LAUSD Board District 2 deeply troubling. In the contest this year between Dr. Rocío Rivas, endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), and María Brenes, backed by charter-school supporters who would like nothing more than to siphon more money away from public schools, our Member of Congress endorsed Brenes. In endorsing Brenes, Rep. Gomez took the side of billionaires like Reed Hastings and Bill Bloomfield and against the teachers’ union. But they lost, and Dr. Rivas won.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez insists he is a pro-labor progressive. But his constituents have detected the cognitive dissonance between his words and his actions. While depicting himself as a progressive labor Democrat, he is actually delivering a different message: Please excuse me as I take a Republican position on schools, standing with billionaire privatizers and against public education and teachers.
This is not the first time Rep. Gomez chose an ally of school privatization instead of a champion for public education—and lost. In 2019, criminal indictments for fraud and money laundering of charter-school treasurer Ref Rodriguez led to his removal from the School Board seat representing District 5. In the ensuing special election, Rep. Gomez endorsed Heather Repenning, not teacher and openly lesbian progressive trailblazer Jackie Goldberg. Does he think we just won’t notice such slaps at educators and against our public schools?
Once again, the Congressman cannot plead ignorance this year; he had the same information we had. Dr. Rocío Rivas was endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Feel the Bern Democratic Club, East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), and the Sunrise Movement. Brenes was supported by charter backers and privatizers. L.A.’s progressive left aligned solidly behind Dr. Rivas, but Rep. Gomez was on the other, losing side. If Rep. Gomez calls himself a progressive lawmaker, why is he not standing with L.A.’s progressive left in supporting the teacher-backed candidate?
Those of us who call ourselves progressive and supporters of public education were keenly aware of the stakes of this contest. The balance of power on the L.A. School Board between teacher-backed board members and charter-backed members hinged on the outcome of this contest, just as it did in Goldberg’s special election in 2019, which she won with 71 percent of ballots cast. This makes Rep. Gomez’ decision to be on the wrong side, again, all the more disappointing.
In a Congressional District that strongly supported Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders not only 2016, but also in 2020, Rep. Gomez insists he is a progressive standard-bearer. But his actions defy that portrayal. Moreover, he has never endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for President. But he was quick to use Sen. Sanders’ image and references suggesting Sanders’ support in his political mail.
Today’s Democratic Party represents a bigger tent than the Republicans’ coalition. But Northeast L.A.’s 34th Congressional District is bright blue, not purplish, with no clear incentive toward moderated stances. By deviating repeatedly from what Democrats stand for on public education, Rep. Jimmy Gomez is out of step with our local electorate. And the numbers do not lie. His margin of victory over David Kim shrank from 12,000 in 2020 to just 3,000 in 2022.
The voters have spoken. We barely, and reluctantly, sent Rep. Jimmy Gomez back to Washington. Voters in Northeast L.A. also elected two progressive upstarts—Eunisses Hernández and Hugo Soto Martinez—to the L.A. City Council, denying two incumbents another term. Voters in L.A.’s Eastside communities insist on an unwavering commitment to true progressive values, including protecting public schools. What will it take for Rep. Jimmy Gomez to listen?
(Alicia Romero Pérez is a public school teacher of 28 years who has lived for 42 years and raised her family in the Eastside neighborhood of City Terrace.)
(Paul McDermott is an educator who taught for 24 years in L.A. public schools and for 11 years at public universities. He has lived for 37 years in the Northeast L.A. neighborhood of Glassell Park and is a longtime officer of the Uptown Gay & Lesbian Alliance (UGLA). Both Romero Pérez and McDermott are voters in the 34th Congressional District. )