Bocanegra concedes in shocker San Fernando Valley Assembly race (Updated)

What happened to State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra?

That’s the question politicos from the San Fernando Valley to Sacramento are asking three weeks after the election. Even his no-name opponent with little cash, a fellow Democrat, wonders how she pulled off the biggest political upset of the year in California.

On Monday Bocanegra, a generally well-regarded politician and an architect of the widely popular film tax credit signed by Governor Brown, trailed political novice Patty Lopez by 467 votes in the 39th Assembly District. The district covers Pacoima, Sylmar, Sun Valley and the city of San Fernando.

A few thousand mail-in and provisional ballots remain uncounted – the exact amount is unclear – according to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder.  But Bocanegra’s deficit has grown steadily since Election Day. 

On Monday, after new results showed Lopez' lead widening, Bocanegra issued a statement conceding the race:

"While the vote tally is incredibly close, it is clear that my opponent will be victorious by the narrowest of margins. Although many residents and community leaders throughout the 39th Assembly District have urged me to undertake a recount, I do not want to put the state - and particularly the residents of the Northeast San Fernando Valley - through such a costly and time-consuming process...

"It has truly been an honor to serve the people of the 39th Assembly District. As the son of a working-class immigrant family, my mother was a teachers aide and my father was a gardener who came to America searching out the American Dream, my parents instilled in my three siblings and I the belief that if you got a good education, work hard and play by the rules you were going to succeed. My service in the Assembly was the manifestation of their hard work and I will forever be grateful to them....

"I wish Ms. Lopez the best of luck and I look forward to continuing to serve the people of the 39th Assembly District in the future."

The Registrar is expected to provide a final tally by Nov. 28.

“For the past week, I couldn’t believe it,” Lopez told KPCC. She was born in Michoachan, Mexico. Spanish is her first language, which is helpful in a district where a third of the electorate is Latino.

“The purpose of the campaign was only to raise concerns so the government would listen to us,” said Lopez. She cited the closure of adult education programs and lack of job programs for youth as particular concerns.

Lopez said Bocanegra, who grew up in the valley and holds a master's degree in urban planning from UCLA, has ignored the district.

“He should be more active in our community – not only with the political people but with people like me, the regular people,” she said.

Who is Patty Lopez?

Lopez, 46, arrived in Pacoima from Mexico with her parents in 1978, she said. Her father was a building contractor. Her mother cleaned homes. She is the youngest of seven children – three brothers and three sisters. Uninterested in government, none participated in her campaign, she said.

For years, Lopez has been a volunteer in Los Angeles public schools. The mother of four girls describes spending countless hours on various campuses around the valley. The United Way of Greater Los Angeles honored Lopez for her work with Padres Activos SFV, a parent activist group.

“Education is the key for families to improve the quality of life for the youth, their families, and our future,” she wrote on her campaign website.

Lopez also worked part time for 12 years at the North Valley Occupational Center in Mission Hills. Lately, she’s collected $800 a month from the county as a home care worker caring for her mother, she said. Her husband, Juan Lopez, also works.

Why was the race so close? 

Bocanegra should have crushed Lopez. First, he won 63 percent of the vote in the June primary, while Lopez captured just 24 percent. Second, his campaign war chest topped $650,000. Lopez has yet to file a complete finance report. She said she spent less than $10,000.

Fundraising numbers can be deceiving. Bocanegra spent about $100,000 on his own primary and general election race, according to Dennis. He funneled the rest to fellow Democrats in tough races.

His Facebook page shows him campaigning for Assemblyman Steve Fox in Palmdale the day before the election. “Proud to help this first time voter vote for Steve Fox!”

“Neither side ran a significant campaign,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data. “So it was a low information environment. And a lot of people don’t know who their state legislators are.”

While Bocanegra was raised in the district and had served as a chief of staff to the previous assemblyman, the urban planner who teaches at Cal State Northridge served just one term.

Did ballot order make a difference?

There is another twist to this race, said Mitchell, who provides data to political candidates from both parties: Bocanegra’s name appeared second on the ballot. The five preceding races on the page featured a Democrat first and a Republican second. Lopez and Bocanegra were both Democrats competing under California’s new top-two system.

“People are still not expecting to see two candidates with the same party in November,” Mitchell said. “If they are Democrats, they are literally going down this page and voting for the first Democrat they see.”

Mitchell looked at six other races where members of the same party faced each other in both the primary and the general election. In each case, the candidate who went from the first position to the second on the ballot garnered a smaller percentage of the vote in the second position.

For example, Senator Holly Mitchell beat little known challenger Isidro Armenta 85-15 in the June primary when she appeared first on the ballot. When she appeared second on the ballot in November, she beat him 69-31, with no appreciable difference in the dynamics of the campaign, said Mitchell.

“When people on ballot are not household names, it creates an environment where this can happen more often,” he said. “People can go on autopilot as they quickly go down the ballot.”

Republican support for Lopez

While Lopez is a Democrat, she received help from two Republican activists in the San Fernando Valley. One is Ricardo Antonio Benitez, who ran against Bocanegra two years ago and lost his bid for the state senate this year. The other is David Hernandez, who is running for Los Angeles City Council next year and regularly appears on her Facebook page. It is unclear how much they campaigned for Lopez.

“We are lacing up our dancing shoes,” Hernandez wrote on his Facebook page in anticipation of Lopez’ victory. He did not return a call for comment. It’s worth noting Republican voters comprised nearly 30 percent of the voters, according to Political Data.

“If Republicans get a cue to vote for a particular candidate, they could vote as a block and make a big diff in a low turnout election,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge.

Lopez declined to offer her views on a variety of issues beyond education, including fracking, abortion rights and gay marriage.

“I don’t have comment on those issues yet,” she said. “I have to educate myself.”

Did Alarcon help?

The first time candidate also drew the support of Richard Alarcon, who has represented the Northern San Fernando Valley on the LA City Council and in the state legislature.

“She represents all the people of the 39th Assembly District who are tired of big machine politics,” he wrote on Facebook. Alarcon, who ran against Bocanegra himself in 2012, was convicted of voter fraud for not living in his city council district earlier this year. But he still wields some influence in the area.

The third place finisher, Democrat Kevin Suscavage, also endorsed her.  He won 14 percent of vote in the primary.

But Mitchell of Political Data argued Lopez remains  relatively unknown, and that her campaign may have had little to do with the results. “The number of voters who were making an informed choice for Patty Lopez was probably pretty small,” he said.

Lopez said she knocked on a lot of doors and that it paid off. She was aggressive.

“When I saw signs for Mr. Bocanegra, I went to the door and asked them, ‘Tell me, why are you supporting Mr. Bocanegra? Do you know at least three or four things he’s done?” The answer, she said, was almost always "no."

“I was all over my district,” Lopez said. “I believe that’s why I got a lot of votes.” 

This story has been updated.