LOS ANGELES — On Saturday afternoon, Jimmy Gomez, the California legislator who wants to represent the northeastern part of this city in Congress, picked up his wife, Mary, and drove their electric car to a street not far from their home. They knocked on doors together, cramming literature into mailboxes full of fliers for his 21 rivals. It took 15 minutes for the couple to run into an actual voter, a video editor named Dave Rogers who greeted them from his porch.
“Another candidate!” said Rogers with a laugh.
For five minutes, Gomez and Rogers small-talked about the growing trendiness of the neighborhood — the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron is a neighbor — and Gomez subtly pitched himself as the successor to Xavier Becerra, who left Congress to become California’s attorney general and opened up a safe Democratic seat.
“He never endorses,” Gomez said. “All of a sudden, I get a call, and I hear: The attorney general’s gonna endorse you. Wow!”
“That made my decision a lot easier, with 22 candidates,” Rogers said.
Gomez, the Harvard-educated son of Mexican immigrants, is the front-runner in the first congressional race of the Trump era. It’s happening in a part of America where Republicans are becoming scarce.
In 2000, the last year that a Republican presidential candidate campaigned in California, George W. Bush won 29.5 percent of the vote in what’s now the 34th Congressional District. In 2016, Donald Trump won just 10.7 percent. California’s unique primary system means that the top two candidates from the April 4 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the June 6 general election. The overwhelming partisan nature of the district means that two Democrats — one of whom is expected to be Gomez — are likely to advance.
Gomez is not exactly on the vanguard of the new progressive resistance movement that is sweeping the country in protest of Trump. He’s been endorsed by a slew of elected officials — and the California Democratic Party itself. But his background — and liberal politics — has not turned off progressives. Gomez supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race, but a surge of new voters won the district for Bernie Sanders.
“I like him a lot, and I’ve known him a long time,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said of Gomez. “You have a lot of progressives in that race, but Jimmy’s progressive, too. Credential-wise, it’s a win-win for us.”
It’s the district’s very blueness that’s made it a proving ground for liberal politics. To win back the House in the 2018 midterms, the Democrats would have to flip districts in California, as well as the increasingly competitive states of Arizona and Texas, where the Latino and Asian populations are growing quickly.
At the same time, the Trump victory has been driving Latino politics to the left — a movement that outside groups encourage. Even though Becerra endorsed Clinton for president last year, two of Gomez’s rivals, Wendy Carrillo and Arturo Carmona, worked for Sanders in California and are touting that connection. In 1992, the last time the area elected a new congressman, just nine Democrats ran. This year, the field had doubled.
The district, meanwhile, is 65 percent Hispanic, and every leading candidate but one is Latino.
“What we see are Latinos joining other groups to push back on the Trump administration’s attacks on women’s access to health services, health care, environmental protections, and other key social issues,” said Latino Victory Project President Cristóbal Alex. “We are witnessing a wave of qualified Latinos who see it as their duty to run for office at all levels to defend their communities and fight back against Trump and this hostile administration.”
That’s played out in the 34th, which starts in downtown Los Angeles and stretches west to Koreatown and north to Pasadena. Gomez rose through the Latino political network, serving as a congressional staffer, then moving to L.A. and winning a safe Assembly seat. He’s raised $245,000 for the House race — much of it from political action committees and political allies. His campaign literature rattles off endorsements from Becerra, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the leaders of the state legislature and the California Democratic Party.
Carmona, the deputy political director of the Sanders campaign in California, has tried to flip Gomez’s endorsements against him. In a negative mailer, he warns voters that the assemblyman has taken $13,000 from “de escuelas charter,” or charter schools, and $73,700 from “compañías farmacéuticas,” or pharmaceutical companies. In an interview near Mariachi Plaza, Carmona declined to attack Gomez personally, but bemoaned candidates who “are taking or have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from interests that are hurting immigrants, that are hurting consumers.”
The outside arbiters of progressive politics have declined to enter the race — in part, because Gomez has ceded so little room to his left. He reminds voters that he expanded paid family leave in California, that he supports single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage. On Saturday, when volunteers arrived at Gomez headquarters to walk precincts, they were signed in by Yolanda Nogueira, a local business owner who’d housed “Northeast L.A. for Bernie” in her building.
“To me, ‘the establishment’ means people who are out of touch with the people they’re elected to represent,” Gomez said. “Someone like Bernie Sanders can be in office for 30 years, but he’s not the establishment.”
Neither Sanders nor his group Our Revolution has endorsed a candidate. Cenk Uygur, whose Young Turks network and Justice Democrats PAC are based just outside of the district, said several candidates had reached out to him. Gomez’s only apparent strike was that he backed Clinton for president.
The risk progressives see in deep-blue seats is not that Democrats will lose, but that opposition to Trump will allow the candidates opposed by progressives to blur the lines.
In the 34th, every leading candidate puts the president near their message’s center. Gomez’s mail features the warning that “the first congressional election in the U.S. since Trump won will be held . . . in OUR community.” Former journalist Alejandra Campoverdi, also a candidate, tells voters she’s “the proven fighter we need to stand up to Donald Trump.” Sara Hernandez, a teacher-turned-political aide, is running TV ads promising to take Trump “to school” and fight deportations.
Another problem for a progressive candidate emerged in the form of social-media posts from women in the Sanders campaign who worked with Carmona, accusing him of incompetence and sexism. Several progressive groups had already bet on Carmona as the best “Bernie” candidate. Democracy for America, which had endorsed Sanders, condemned Carmona. In an interview, Carmona insisted that he was being smeared.
“There were definitely some entrenched issues around sexism in the broader campaign,” Carmona said. “There’s no question that sexism exists in our society. I have worked to be an ally all my life, and all my career. But when it comes to these specific three or four attacks, they’re not only unsubstantiated, they’re false.”