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.
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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.
Aguilar is something of a political prodigy. At 26, he became the youngest City Council member in Redlands history, and now, along with his duties as mayor, he runs a government-affairs consulting firm. He seems to be responding to the pressure from his left: although he was once identified by a local paper as a self-described moderate, his campaign literature now tags him as a progressive. In 2012, he told the editorial board of the San Bernardino Sun that he supported the Simpson-Bowles plan, which included deep benefit cuts to Social Security—but his first television commercial featured Aguilar reassuring his grandmothers that he would protect the program.
As the campaign becomes more contentious, the DCCC has subtly downplayed its support of Aguilar, who was the first candidate that the group recruited for this cycle and who featured prominently in its “Jumpstart” program last year. In March, when the DCCC released its list of the top races in 2014, it failed to mention Aguilar, instead simply naming the 31st District as a prime “red to blue” opportunity. But while it seeks to avoid highlighting what has become an intra-party battle, the DCCC is still fully behind Aguilar, coordinating with the campaign and fundraising on his behalf.
“This race is costing the Democrats a lot of money,” says Claremont McKenna College professor John Pitney Jr., who studies California politics. Pitney says that no Republican candidate has gained much traction, and so “it’s very possible that Aguilar and Reyes will go at each other again in November.”
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On a gusty spring evening, people slowly file into a candidates’ forum at the Sacred Heart Church, located between a roaring freeway and a mostly vacant shopping complex in the city of Rancho Cucamonga. The primary is just over a month away, and by the 7:30 pm start time, almost all of the folding chairs have been taken. Like the district, the crowd appears to be about half-Latino; Spanish translation is provided, and a local immigrant-rights group is co-sponsoring the event.
While the Democratic field may be crowded, there’s really no excuse to lose to the Republicans here. One GOP contender, Paul Chabot, doesn’t believe in climate change and thinks the proper response to the country’s immigration dilemma is to export Plan Colombia to Mexico. (The plan sends billions of dollars in military aid to Colombia, despite widespread human rights abuses.) Another Republican hopeful, Ryan Downing, argues against sending a “lady figure” to Congress because the GOP won’t listen to her. And the third contender is ex-lobbyist and Miller aide Lesli Gooch, who didn’t make the event and only bothered to register to vote in the district this spring.
The questions at the forum reflect the problems of the district: jobs, immigration, education, the environment. Along with Reyes and Aguilar, the other Democrat here tonight is former Representative Joe Baca, who lost an election for a neighboring district in 2012 to Gloria Negrete McLeod and recently referred to her as “some bimbo.” Baca often looks bored as he ticks off Democratic talking points, using much of his time to remind the audience that he spent fourteen years in office and that “seniority does count in Washington.”
Although Reyes and Aguilar have similar platforms, Reyes tends to paint a broader picture of the problems facing the country—and their solutions. Aguilar says that the “primary piece” to ending inequality is raising the minimum wage to $10.10; Reyes argues that a minimum wage hike is “the least we can do,” mentioning the need for pay equity and more fairly taxing corporations. She notes the need for reform on immigration, but also criticizes the ongoing deportations of people who haven’t committed a crime. “Separating families is not humane,” she tells the audience. “I don’t care how you paint it.”
The biggest difference, of course, is their backgrounds. Aguilar got involved in government affairs immediately after graduating from college and was tapped early by the Democratic Party. Reyes is a first-time candidate, an outsider in her late 50s with a powerful advocacy group behind her. “She spent her life doing something else,” Pitney says, “which is kind of what the framers had in mind when they invented the House of Representatives.”
Back at her campaign headquarters, a historic Victorian house that until recently was her law office, Reyes talks about her new phase as a political candidate. Before this, she labored in relative obscurity: visiting high schools to help Dreamers gather documents for DACA applications, volunteering on Mondays at Legal Aid, collecting postcards to pressure Miller into supporting immigration reform. Now, per the requirements of politics, her biography is front and center, plastered across mailings and websites. And while it might feel strange to have to recount for every new reporter the journey she has taken to get here, there is value, she says, in looking back.
“It has to do with the lives we lead,” Reyes says. “What did we do for the community without being paid? What did we do without having to write something about it?”