51st State Assembly candidates seek to set themselves apart as election day nears

Wendy Carrillo and Luis Lopez at a Highland Park candidates’ debate |Brenda Rees


On the surface, Wendy Carrillo and Luis Lopez seem to have much in common. The two candidates in next Tuesday’s runoff election for the 51st State Assembly District are both progressive Latinos and Democrats with similar positions and points of view on important issues.  Yet Carrillo brings her experience as an immigrant and journalist to the table, while Lopez has honed his skills working in the healthcare industry and as a community activist. Read on for more about what distinguishes these two candidates.

Wendy Carrillo

Wendy Carrillo

Wendy Carrillo was only five years old when her family arrived in the U.S. after fleeing the violence of El Salvador. After living as an undocumented immigrant for several years, she became a permanent resident and, by age 22, had become a U.S. citizen. Her immigrant experience has shaped her campaign and positions on policy as she runs for the 51st Assembly District.

The passage of Prop 187, the controversial anti-immigration initiative that was eventually repealed, was a wake up call for Carrillo. “It changed my worldview in terms of what can I as an individual do to help,” she said.

Earlier this year, Carrillo lost her bid to replace Xavier Becerra, now California Attorney General, as representative of the 34th Congressional District. But the winner of that election, state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, left behind an open seat that went up for grabs. So, only a few months after running for Congress, Carrillo shifted gears and launched a new campaign for the 51st Assembly District.

While immigration legislation is made at the federal level, Carrillo, a former radio broadcaster and union organizer, sees California as a leader in immigration reform. Several years ago the state legislature passed the California DREAM Act, which allows college students in the country illegal to apply for state financial aid. Now, state lawmakers can continue to lead on immigration reform after President Trump has moved to dismantle the DACA program to shield undocumented students from deportation, Carrillo said. “We push federal legislation that pushes the federal government,” she says.

  • Campaign Website: WendyforAssembly.com
  • Endorsed By: Rep. Jimmy Gomez, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Councilmember José Huizar, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and others

Carrillo also sees California as leading on the recent hot button issue of combating sexual harassment, owing in large part to Sacramento’s own scandal on this issue. “There isn’t a hotline, there isn’t a safe space where women and men can share stories of harassment, so how does that change?” Carrillo asks.

She hopes that upcoming public hearings will address this. “I hope to be up there and be able to help in some way,” she says.

Carrillo also sees the state legislature as crucial in dealing with local issues, especially education. She pointed out that California spends significantly more on incarceration than education.

“As a Democratic progressive state, those are backwards priorities,” she said, tracing the lack of funding to Proposition 13, which has significantly limited property tax increases since 1978. As a result, Carrillo favors a split-roll tax, which would increase the amount of property taxes that businesses would have to pay but allow homeowners the same protections as under Prop 13.

There are many public charter schools in Assembly District 51, and Carrillo supports them. However, she wants them held to higher standards than traditional public schools since they’re given more leeway in how they’re run. Carrillo says the state should play an important role in holding these schools accountable, especially since it can approve charters if the school district and county don’t. “Who is monitoring?” she asks.

At a recent debate, Carrillo’s opponent brought up a Huffington Post article she wrote in 2010 as evidence that she didn’t support teacher unions. Carrillo called this a misunderstanding of what she wrote, and supports unionization at all public schools, not only for teachers but for employees like janitors and cafeteria workers as well.

She personally credits teachers for helping with her own educational struggles.

“When I was in high school, I had the misfortune of dropping out,” she says. “It took my high school teachers and my principal to notice that I was missing, and be able to [help me] graduate on time.”

Luis Lopez

Luis Lopez

In his first job out of college, Luis Lopez organized and trained women who were natural neighborhood leaders to spread critically important women’s health information to small groups. This so-called promotora program for a Santa Ana nonprofit was the beginning a long career in health care. Now, as a candidate, Lopez has made affordable health care a cornerstone of his campaign.

Lopez was eight years old when he lost his mother, an immigrant home-maker with four young boys, to chronic kidney disease. Even as a kid, he was struck by the travail of her having to navigate bus transfers to a clinic more than 15 miles away to obtain life-sustaining dialysis. That experience influenced his decision, both before and after earning his master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, to work in health care to expand coverage and improve access for underserved people.

In addition to his work on women’s health, Lopez, 44,  has worked in government and community relations for AltaMed Health Services and City of Hope, which specializes in cancer treatment. This experience has made him passionate about expanding health coverage to all Californians, particularly passing single-payer healthcare in this state.

“We have to prioritize this,” Lopez says. “There are nations in the world that do a lot better at delivering care to everyone in a much more inexpensive fashion.” Lopez acknowledges the anxiety over funding such a proposal, and so emphasizes the importance of getting the entire California Democratic Caucus on board in Sacramento, and most importantly, voter support.

“I look forward in joining that conversation and hearing over how to put together all the components that will help us get there while still sustaining the support for it,” he says.

  • Campaign Website: LuisLopez.org
  • Endorsed By: Congresswoman Judy Chu, State Controller Betty Yee, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, former Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg and others

Lopez’s opponent has characterized his work in the healthcare industry as benefitting corporate interests over patients’ access to services and healthcare workers’ wages. Lopez calls these claims baseless, pointing out that he’s endorsed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers. He also defends his advocacy work. “I have been an advocate for HIV/AIDS patients, cancer patients, an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, and I’m proud of my record, and I will continue to make health care access my priority,” he says.

Lopez has also served a variety of neighborhood and local improvement organizations, including as vice president of The Eagle Rock Association. In 2015, he circulated petitions among neighborhood residents to oppose the expansion of the Scholl Canyon Landfill in nearby Glendale. Eagle Rock residents don’t use this dump, but their air quality is impacted by the waste dumped there, and the diesel that trucks spew on their way, he said.

Efforts like these have also motivated Lopez to prioritize California’s initiative to rely entirely on renewable energy by 2045. He wants to push the state to ban polystyrene containers and look further into biodegradable forms of packaging.

“We need to step up and we need to do everything we can to stay on track with our goals,” he said.

Lopez also wants to prioritize state incentives to build affordable housing and penalize those who don’t keep up with those numbers. He supports a ballot measure for a bond to fund affordable housing, and wants to prioritize educating voters about the importance of that.

When asked about how to pay for all these initiatives, including the unpopular possibility of raising taxes, Lopez says this: “I know that there’s always concerns about taxes and who’s paying for these initiatives,” he says. “But these problems won’t go away on their own.”

Phoenix Tso is the editor of the Alhambra Source and a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles

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