Will a Latina Labor Lawyer Replace a Tea Party Congressman in California?
Eloise Gomez Reyes, the 58-year-old daughter of a farmworker, made up her mind about what she would do with her life after her first encounter with the US legal system. Back when she was in junior high, when she spent her summers in the fields picking onions and grapes under the California sun, her parents had gone to an attorney for advice. She can’t remember the specifics of the case, only that the encounter left her mother and father feeling deeply disappointed, even defrauded.
“They looked for someone who could speak Spanish,” Reyes recalls. “And the lawyer didn’t do what they said they would do. For people whose first language is not English, they are going to seek out someone they can communicate with—and I realized this was a great need.”
The Spanish-speaking Reyes decided she would become a lawyer. She grew up in Colton, about sixty miles east of Los Angeles, and worked her way through high school, junior college, the University of Southern California and Loyola Law School. She found work at a labor law firm in Los Angeles, representing union members who had been injured on the job. She was idealistic, but she also loved a good fight, loved the chance to argue and win. “You know where the line is drawn,” she says with a smile. “These were people that could no longer support their families, so you had to fight to make sure they got their money.”
She eventually returned to Colton to open her own law firm, where she continued to represent injured workers. She kept up a busy schedule on the side: volunteering with Legal Aid, helping to open a health clinic for low-income residents, supporting local Democratic candidates and causes. When residents in south Colton grew concerned about a company’s clean-up plan for a toxic dump site—which called for up to sixty trucks to pass near a school each day—she took the case, arguing that the air quality would be affected. “I knew her from her work with Legal Aid,” says Rachel Warner, a longtime resident of the area who led the effort. “She spoke in front of the City Council and helped us win—without charging anything.”
It was the life, more or less, that Reyes had planned as a young teen: being a lawyer who looked out for the underdog. Then, last spring, staffers from EMILY’S List paid her a visit. They were trying to find a female candidate to run in a newly drawn congressional district that includes Colton. After interviewing Reyes, among other potential candidates, the group—which supports pro-choice Democratic women for political office—told her that it would help her set up her campaign should she decide to run. Reyes gave the offer some thought. Two years ago, voters in the district sent a hard-right member to Congress: Gary Miller, who, in Reyes’s words, “voted against everything the community stood for.” She worked with a law firm to transfer her clients and announced her candidacy; at the campaign’s launch, Reyes’s mother introduced her in Spanish.
* * *
From Los Angeles, one arrives in the 31st District by driving east toward the smog, into a sprawling region known as the Inland Empire. There was a time, not too long ago, when people living in the sprawl looked toward a bright future: construction was booming, home values soaring, the population surging. Then the housing bubble burst. Jobs disappeared—more than 70,000 in construction alone—and, with the loss of steady paychecks, foreclosure rates skyrocketed. In 2012, the largest city in the district, San Bernardino, declared bankruptcy. Last fall, the Census identified the region as the poorest among the country’s twenty-five largest metropolitan areas. While the numbers have been inching in a positive direction since then, San Bernardino County’s unemployment rate is still 9.3 percent. At a candidates’ forum, one man in the audience told me that he’s optimistic about the future because “we have nowhere to go but up.”
The 31st District is—or should be—a Democratic stronghold: Latinos make up half the population, with 57 percent of the electorate having voted for Obama in 2012. Instead, it has the dubious distinction of being the most Democratic district to have a Republican member in Congress. Despite representing a heavily Latino district, Miller, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, holds extreme anti-immigrant positions, having co-sponsored Representative Jim Sensenbrenner’s infamous Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, and more recently voting against the DREAM Act. That Miller is in power in the 31st District (he’s been in Congress since 1999, and represented another, more conservative district before this) is mostly due to California’s so-called “jungle” primary system, which was passed by state voters in 2010. Primaries now include all candidates, regardless of party, with the top two vote-getters moving to the general election. Four Democrats and two Republicans ran for the district in 2012. The Democrats split the vote, the two Republicans advanced, and Miller won.
But in February, Miller—who realized that his chances of winning the district again were slim—announced his retirement, increasing the likelihood that Republicans would lose control of the seat.
As for the Democrats, their top vote-getter in 2012 was Pete Aguilar, the ambitious 34-year-old Latino mayor of nearby Redlands. And today, it is Aguilar—who once favored cuts to Social Security—who is Reyes’s main rival. At a time when Democrats are striving to elect more Latinos to office, the contest is likely to do just that. But it also raises a pivotal question—what kind of Latino candidate?—as it pits an establishment Democrat against an outsider with an activist background who has mounted an unlikely challenge to his left.
Aguilar’s reputation as a rising star in the party took something of a hit after the 2012 defeat. “It was just a math problem,” he told NBC Latino. “There were too many Democrats in the race.” Hoping to avoid another crowded primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee closed ranks early around Aguilar. Two days after his campaign was launched, DCCC chair Steve Israel of New York spoke at an Aguilar fundraiser in Los Angeles; hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations followed. Aguilar lined up the backing of big-name politicians like Dianne Feinstein, and he has also received the support of the state Democratic Party.
But this quick coronation left some progressives feeling slighted, and EMILY’S List took the unusual step of supporting a challenge to the Democratic establishment’s pick. “They’re an equalizer,” says Reyes about EMILY’S List, “because it does take a lot of money to run for office.” The powerful group, with 3 million members, has allowed Reyes to keep pace with Aguilar’s fundraising. Meanwhile, several progressive House leaders have peeled off to support Reyes, including Arizona’s Raúl Grijalva and California’s Lucille Roybal-Allard and Xavier Becerra, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Other notable supporters include former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. What the DCCC feared most—a divisive primary on June 3—is being realized.