Labor advocate Wendy Carrillo elected to California Assembly
Wendy Carrillo calls voters at her campaign's headquarters in Los Angeles. | Damian Dovarganes / AP

LOS ANGELES—A former local radio show host and SEIU activist backed by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, California Labor Federation, National Women’s Political Caucus, Emily’s List, Democracy for America, and a host of other endorsers, won a special election in this city’s Assembly District 51 on Tuesday, December 5th.

Early results posted shortly after the polls closed at 8 pm had Carrillo ahead by more than 10 points, 55.59 percent to her opponent, fellow Democrat Luis López’ 44.41 percent.

As the count continued, Carrillo kept her lead but the race tightened to 52.83 percent to 47.17 percent. The margin, in an election with barely 10 percent voter participation, amounted to only 943 votes. Late in the evening, López conceded the race, saying, “I wish her the best. I hope she will reach out to my supporters as she continues to build her base.” Final numbers in the election await the counting of mail ballots.

In a statement on behalf of Democracy for America the morning after the election, Carrillo stated, “I am excited to get to Sacramento and start fighting for action on climate change, free college, single-payer healthcare, and a slew of other urgent progressive issues and bills. But I cannot do it alone, and we cannot just do it in California.

“If we are going to take our movement to the next level and bring real change to people’s lives, we need to elect progressives up and down the ballot, from East LA to VA.”

This Assembly race was the final stage of a cascade of other political events that started when California Senator Barbara Boxer retired. In the 2016 general election, she was succeeded by Kamala Harris, who had been California’s attorney general. U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra was then appointed California attorney general. Wendy Carrillo ran in the primary last April to replace Becerra in Congress and received about 5 percent of the vote, coming in sixth out of 20 candidates. 51st District Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez was elected in the runoff to become the newest U.S. Representative from California.

After a raucous primary in October that featured over a dozen candidates, Carrillo and López came out as the top two contestants with, respectively, 22.16 percent and 18.59 percent of the vote, the others trailing far behind. In that election, too, the rate of voter participation reached only about 10 percent.

A Carrillo victory on Tuesday had been expected, especially in light of her high-power endorsements, although in the minds of many voters, either of the two Latinx candidates would have well served the district.

At Carrillo’s York Boulevard campaign headquarters on election day, a victory mood dominated. A bevy of phone bankers were making calls to prospective voters all the way up to 8 pm to get out the vote. Each time a caller reached a voter who had already cast their vote for Carrillo, they rang a bell on the table to inspire other callers to push on. Unions, city officials, political clubs, and neighborhood volunteers filled out the ranks of callers. At the next table from me, Maria Elena Durazo, former Secretary-Treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and presently a candidate for the California State Senate, was making calls.

Assembly District 51 abuts downtown L.A. to the northeast, roughly encompassing the communities of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Chinatown, Lincoln Heights and Lincoln Park, City Terrace, East L.A., Eagle Rock, Edendale, Highland Park, and El Sereno. Latinx voters are a strong component of the electorate here.

California has 80 Assembly seats, each representing an average of 465,674 residents. District 51 has 223,000 registered voters.

In recent years, women had been suffering a losing streak in California state government. From a high of 37 women in the state Senate and Assembly in 2006, the number had fallen to 26 in 2017. Carrillo’s win begins what may be a recovery. Female voters with a Trump-axe to grind have been seen around the country as demonstrably motivated to engage in the political process and support women candidates.

Apart from that, judging from the buzz at her headquarters, Wendy Carrillo was considered the more progressive of the two finalists in Tuesday’s election. Her campaign literature highlighted five main issues in her campaign:

1) Quality education. As a first-generation college graduate, with a B.A. from Cal State L.A. and a master’s degree from USC, Carrillo rose from childhood as an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. She became a U.S. citizen in her early 20s. She supports quality public education for all children and believes that students should be able to graduate from college without During the campaign some eyebrows were raised, nevertheless, at her acceptance of $38,000 from advocates of charter schools.

2) Economic opportunity. Carrillo worked with SEIU on campaigns to secure fair wages for caregivers who provide seniors and people with disabilities the dignity to stay in their homes, as well as better working conditions and staffing ratios for nursing home workers. Aside from wage increases, part of her work involved immigration reform and protecting families during the foreclosure crisis. She has committed herself to workers earning a living wage, retirement security, affordable housing, and economic growth especially in the fields of green energy, entertainment, and technology.

3) Access to healthcare. Carrillo believes healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and will defend the Affordable Care Act, working toward universal healthcare in California. She intends to advocate for greater transparency in prescription drug pricing to bring down the costs of life-saving drugs.

4) Affordable housing. Los Angeles is among America’s most expensive cities. Residents experience dire economic stress trying to afford housing. It does not take much, sometimes just the annual rent increase, to drive families into homelessness. She supports efforts to provide a permanent source of funding to build affordable housing as well as a statewide housing bond.

5) Women’s rights. As a role model herself for young girls, empowering them to succeed, Carrillo supports gender pay equity and expanding STEM programs in schools. As the Trump administration seeks to defund Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, she promises to continue protecting these essential resources for cancer screenings, birth control, and life-saving treatments.

Carrillo’s endorsements also included the California Democratic Party, whose Chair Eric Bauman, an openly gay man, stated, “Wendy’s time on the frontlines of the environmental justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and the worker rights movements well prepare her to be an outstanding member of the Assembly.”

Bauman’s support was meaningful, as Carrillo’s opponent, Luis López, is also an openly gay man who, apart from his job as director of government affairs for City of Hope Medical Center, is also a board member at Planned Parenthood, a former president of the East Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, and co-founder of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. The major union endorsement López received was from the United Teachers Los Angeles.

A couple of days before the election, accusations of homophobia in the Carrillo camp surfaced when HONOR PAC President Mario Ceballos and Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur issued a joint statement criticizing “yet another homophobic smear campaign.” The statement continued, “In campaign mailers and digital communications, supporters of Wendy Carrillo attacked the integrity not only of Luis López, but also of Equality California and members of California’s LGBT Legislative Caucus, conveying false information to voters about the funding of his campaign.”

LGBTQ organizations had backed López in part to boost representation in the California state legislature. At press time, this reporter’s call to the Equality California media representative had not been returned, so factual evidence of the “smear campaign” has not been verified.

Map of Assembly District 51

An award-winning journalist, Carrillo had a ten-year career as a radio and digital host, writer and producer of “Knowledge is Power,” a community-based radio program on Los Angeles Power 106 FM, where topics ranging from access to higher education and ending the school-to-prison pipeline to environmental justice and political transparency were discussed with elected officials, community leaders, and stakeholders. She currently sits on the advisory board of Vision to Learn, a non-profit that provides students in need with free glasses to advance their education.

Carrillo will serve the final year of Gomez’ Assembly term. Gomez had endorsed Carrillo as his successor. She will begin her work in the Assembly in January, when the second year of the two-year term starts. In another year, she will have to face re-election in a new race.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.