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Losing & Learning: Three candidates find out what it’s like to run in and not win an Eastside election

BY NATHAN SOLIS

Nearly 50 candidates ran this year in Eastside elections for two City Council seats, State Assembly and a seat in Congress. The last of those four contests will be resolved Tuesday, when voters pick the winner of the  51st Assembly District runoff. The victors in those races got the spoils — and between two and 5 1/2 years in office. But the losing candidates learned some lessons, sometimes painful ones. The Eastsider interviewed three of this year’s candidates about their experiences running, but not winning, hard-fought campaigns.

“When you run for office, you can’t afford to take anything negatively” — Maria Cabildo

Candidate Maria Cabildo received sage advice during her campaign for the 34th Congressional District: Grow thick skin.

“My mother would say, ‘You’re not a little gold coin, not everyone is going to love you,’” said Cabildo.

Cabildo needed thick skin during the campaign for the congressional seat left vacant when Xavier Becerra was appointed State Attorney General. She knew what a negative email looked like. But as a candidate, she received horrible emails criticizing her for having the audacity to run for office.

“When you run for office, you can’t afford to take anything negatively,” she said.

The East L.A. native focused her career on bringing affordable housing to her community years before she ever decided to run for Congress. “I tell people I had a life of public service already. That didn’t start when I ran for office.”

Despite an endorsement from the L.A. Times, Cabildo’s grassroots campaign lagged behind in fundraising compared to the other candidates, and she only had enough money to send out mailers to a tiny part of the district. She finished third overall among 23 candidates in the primary, with state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez eventually winning a runoff election.

Cabildo took away a number of lessons from her run for Congress, like the shared values of people throughout the district, which includes City Terrace where she grew up. They included a need for affordable housing, healthcare and gender neutral bathrooms.

“That has had a profound impact on how I look at the world. I don’t think I would have had that if I didn’t run for office,” said Cabildo.

“The average person does not know how many hours you have to spend on the phone, raising money” — Tracy Van Houten

The decision to run for office was a reaction to Donald Trump’s win last November, said Tracy Van Houten, an aerospace engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was a candidate in the 34th Congressional District race.

Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, racist, anti-science rhetoric were enough to get Van Houten, 35, to run. “But to be honest, I was uncomfortable to make it all about Trump,” said Van Houten about her campaign. “To me it was about representation,” said Van Houten, an under 40, female engineer and mom.  “Those are [characteristics] that are not well represented in Congress.”

Shortly before the primary election night, she went over the mail-in ballot numbers with her campaign manager. “We knew numbers-wise it wasn’t looking good. I believe I told my campaign manager, ‘If anyone can do it, I can. Watch me,’” said Van Houten. She did not secure enough votes to make the runoff.

She plans to run again in the future and is eagerly awaiting 2020. Not just because she hopes it marks the end of the Trump presidency, but also because it’s the year that NASA plans to land a new rover on Mars, a project she’s currently working on.

Most of all she’s grateful to be near her family again. “I believe the campaign was 60 days, and I think I was home for two nights on time for dinner and bedtime to put my kids to bed. That’s the biggest challenge. My days were less certain during the campaign because of all the last-minute meetings and raising funds over the phone. The average person does not know how many hours you have to spend on the phone, raising money.”

 “It was like doing a startup business” — Alex De Ocampo

Alex De Ocampo had to put together a campaign very quickly after a special election was called to fill the 51st State Assembly District seat left vacant after Jimmy Gomez was elected to Congress. That made it even more challenging to win voters’ attention, he said.

“It was like doing a startup business,” said De Ocampo, a Filipino-American who grew up in Historic Filipinotown. “It’s intense.”

De Ocampo, who waged a losing campaign four years ago to represent the 13th City Council District, focused this year’s assembly campaign on affordable child care,  job training and health care. But De Ocampo’s main motivation to keep going was to give a voice to those without representation.

“Someone encouraged me at one of the civic meetings to be their voice. Being a gay Filipino, realizing that there needs to be some type of voice for the issues that matter, was important to me. And not just the Filipinos, but all of those who were not heard: That truly motivated me,” said De Ocampo.

Running in a special election meant De Ocampo, 38, might have forgotten to run certain errands during the week, like pick up his dry cleaning or schedule a dentist appointment.

Following the election, De Ocampo returned to his work as a manager at the Saban Family Foundation.

When asked if he would run again for office, he exhaled deeply, with a sort of laugh.

“I personally need to catch up on sleep, spend time with my family, basically get back into a routine before I even consider that,” said De Ocampo. “I will still continue the fight in the community, in this community that has given me so much opportunity in my life,”

He quickly added, “My hat’s off to those trying to make it through the 2018 primary.”

Nathan Solis spent two years covering fires and honey oil lab explosions in Northern California and is back in Los Angeles reporting on local politics.

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