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Two prominent leaders are in the running to represent Long Beach, Downey and Southeast Los Angeles in Congress. Meet Robert Garcia, Long Beach’s first Latino and openly gay mayor, and Cristina Garcia, an assemblywoman who came up as a fiery activist in Southeast Los Angeles’ (SELA) barrios.

The two are vying to win over a newly drawn 42nd congressional district facing issues around jobs and pollution stemming from the port and freeways, according to consultants.

“People are concerned about rising inflation with the ramifications to the local economy and the public safety challenges that all municipalities are facing,” said Luis Alvarado, a political consultant based in the Whittier area.

The race will be ultimately decided during the November midterms, meaning the winner will enter a Congress likely shaped by GOP control. Days after being interviewed, both leading candidates were asked to submit a statement on what specific actions they can commit for immigration reform within their first 100 days in face of those obstacles.

Mayor Robert Garcia reiterated his support for Dreamers and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, adding that “in Long Beach, we led by working to establish a Justice Fund to provide legal support for families facing deportation, and we also became a Sanctuary City to provide a safe haven for undocumented residents. In Congress, I will fight to support similar efforts across the country.”

Click here to read Robert Garcia’s full statement on immigration reform.

Assemblymember Cristina Garcia said she grew up in a mixed immigrant status family, adding that she will work with advocates and colleagues to ensure a comprehensive immigration bill is introduced that benefits all immigrants. With possibly fewer Democrats in Congress, reform might seem impossible but “having a bill in print allows us to be prepared to leverage every and any opportunity where Democratic votes will be needed,” she said. “I will always be a prepared advocate.”

Click here to read Cristina Garcia’s full statement on immigration reform.

There are another six candidates that are on the ballot and running for the seat but the Garcias are by far the most known. So what else separates the two Democratic frontrunners?

Meet Cristina Garcia

Cristina Garcia is the assemblymember for District 58, which includes the Bell Gardens barrio she grew up in. Assemblymember Garcia rose as an instrumental activist during the Bell corruption scandal where she organized community rage into civic engagement. She later took her antiestablishment prowess to Sacramento in 2012, having retained her assembly seat ever since.

Her legacy

During her 10 years in office, she said, she has championed environmental justice, menstrual equity, more political visibility for southeast Los Angeles and leadership development.

Assemblymember Garcia said that close to $1 billion dollars were used to clean up thousands of homes contaminated by an Exide facility.

“The state has never embarked in that type of funding or cleanup ever,” she said.

Up to 10,000 homes across east and southeast Los Angeles were polluted with lead contamination by the former Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, according to state regulators. Garcia’s bills (AB 2153 and AB 142) increased fees for battery manufacturers to fund lead acid battery clean-ups including at Exide and more than a dozen other sites statewide.

The governor has signed Assemblymember Garcia’s bills around menstrual equity, which Garcia had pushed for years, which made menstrual products tax-free, available in school restrooms and more.

Assemblymember Garcia is making another environmental push with AB 1778, which if passed would prohibit the state from granting permits or monies to widen freeways in impacted and poor environmental justice communities.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, the policies of how we widen these freeways has been racist… literally hundreds if not thousands of families are at risk of being displaced from the widening of the 710 freeway in the middle of a housing crisis,” she said.

With her leadership, both governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom visited SELA for the first time. Garcia made sure activists were on-hand to speak to leaders directly. The assemblymember also created the Young Legislators Program and Fellows in Government program, as well as the reoccurring “There Ought to be a Law” contest. In one example, 5th graders from Bell Gardens Elementary helped craft a bill that today requires California schools to teach about the forced deportations of Mexicans during the 1930s.

“With my legacy, have I left behind constituents that are better equipped to be the leaders and change agents that we need?” she said. “We’ve been planting those seeds for 10 years here in this community.”

As for the top issues facing the 42nd congressional district, she names environmental justice issues arising from the 710 freeway, environmental degradation and community health problems while also mentioning the need for women’s parity. She sees some overlap between SELA’s pollution-worsening heat islands and Long Beach’s coastal communities that will be impacted by climate change and sea level rise.

Meet Robert Garcia

At age five, Robert Garcia and his mother came from Lima, Peru to the United States where he grew up poor. Some reprieve came for his family with President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty reform for immigrants. In 1999, he became a naturalized citizen at age 21.

In 2014, he came the city’s first mayor of color and openly gay mayor.

His legacy

During his six years as mayor, he said, he has helped Long Beach become a national model for pandemic response and also rebuilt the city’s infrastructure.

With Mayor Garcia at the helm, Long Beach’s pandemic’s response was noted by state leaders, such as Gov. Newsom, national leaders and the the New York Times. The city, with its own health department, vaccinated 99% of seniors, became the first jurisdiction to vaccinate grocery store workers and teachers and transformed its Convention Center into a mass vaccination site.

“We opened schools faster than anybody else,” Mayor Garcia said. “I think most folks in the community will tell you that we met the moment and the crisis.”

For Mayor Garcia, the fight against Covid-19 was personal. In summer 2020, his mother, a healthcare worker named Gaby O’Donnell, and stepfather died due to complications from Covid-19. The mayor told NPR how talks with his mother on her health care work influenced his, and thereby the city’s, approach to the pandemic.

“She understood, early on, that this was a very serious virus and she would talk about that to me,” he told NPR.

In 2016, Garcia also put forward Measure A to voters to increase funds for public safety and city infrastructure via a 10-year sales tax, funding 41 new public safety positions and renovating numerous playgrounds, community centers, parks, fire stations, police stations, libraries, streets and more. Voters first approved the measure in 2016 and then extended it indefinitely in 2020.

“That’s transformed the city. We invest now more on infrastructure than we ever have in the history of the city. We’ve replaced playgrounds and libraries and built roads,” Mayor Garcia told CALÓ NEWS.

As for the top issues facing the 42nd congressional district, he names access to good jobs to feed families, climate issues including greening the port, taking trucks off freeways to move toward zero emissions, clean air and water, and immigration. As an immigrant himself,  immigration reform is a priority for him, he said, including a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people across the country.

Candidate Strategy

Consultants say Robert Garcia has a number of advantages going into the race. There is a preponderance of voters and high turnout precincts in the southern part of the district – largely the mayor’s turf, said Robb Korinke, a political consultant with GrassrootsLab. Korinke was appointed by Mayor Garcia to Long Beach’s Technology and Innovation Commission but is not working for either campaign.

The mayor is benefitting from labor endorsements and being an early supporter of Joe Biden and Gavin Newsom, Korinke added, and the mayor gained a higher profile with his appearance at the Democratic National Convention.

Alvarado, the Whittier-based consultant, said that Robert Garcia’s bank account is telling.
As of late March, the mayor’s committee has raised $821,087 while Assemblymember Cristina Garcia’s camp has raised $215,047, according to Federal Election Commission data. A third candidate, Republican John Briscoe, raised slightly more than her.

Assemblymember Garcia has mentioned that she’s been outspent but victorious multiple times before, nonetheless. Cristina’s strength is in her Capitol-based alliances, consultants say, as she also has secured endorsements from SELA leaders and legendary activists like Dolores Huerta.

Alvardo said that as a freshman in Congress, the winner will find themselves having to adjust working alongside a large California delegation and navigate a likely Republican takeover of  the lower house. He’s quite skeptical that anything major on immigration reform can be done.

“There’s no other way to say it – immigration reform is dead,” Alvarado said. “And there’s nobody who has an appetite to pick it up… especially under the circumstances in which the economy is right now.”

The primary for the 42nd congressional district and other races is June 7. The general election is Nov. 8.

Candidates across Los Angeles County who would like to participate in a Q&A related to Latino issues may contact CALÓ NEWS at brenda@latinomedia.org.