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Face to Face with Four Democrats Who Want Your Vote (Part I)

TERA’s ‘Meet the Candidates’ forum brings Eagle Rock closer to the race for the 51st Assembly District.

The goal of the meeting was to “walk away and feel that we know these individuals a little better,” President Bob Gotham said in his introductory remarks, referring to the four Democratic candidates vying for the 51st District seat in the California Assembly.

The candidates—Arturo Chavez, Jimmy Gomez, Oscar Gutierrez and Luis Lopez—will contest the primaries on June 5 and a general election in November. But on Wednesday night they sat side by side facing about 40 people who had gathered at the , to hear them. Rain had been forecast for the evening. Besides some gusty winds, however, the weather held out.

Supporting politicians on the basis of what they say can be like putting your faith in a blind date: Both situations have the potential to disappoint. But the “Meet the Candidates” event hosted by TERA on April 24 had one advantage: All four aspirants to the California legislature were asked a set of prepared questions aimed at revealing what Gotham referred to as their individual “thought processes.”

Questions were solicited through Eagle Rock Patch and the TERA newsletter distributed to about 2,000 recipients. The questions—six in all—ranged from issues in the California Assembly to more “personal” issues aimed at probing the contestants’ worldviews and personalities.

The Q&A forum, moderated by Maria Nazario, TERA’s immediate past president who is also a board member of the , lasted just under 90 minutes. The evening began with a two-minute “personal statement” from each candidate, followed by a Q&A in which the candidates were given three minutes each to answer questions.

Background ‘Check’

Chavez, who has served as district director to termed-out Assembly Member Gil Cedillo for the past six years, described himself as a first-generation immigrant from Juarez, Mexico. “Like most of our folks up here, we all come from real humble beginnings,” he said, a trifle ungrammatically, referring to his fellow contestants.

Initially a middle-school teacher, Chavez went on to become a small-business entrepreneur. He’s running for office, he said, “primarily because this is an area I grew up in” (he lives in El Sereno) and to address the state legislature’s “serious problems that need serious attention.”

Like Chavez, Gutierrez also lives in El Sereno. After working for two decades in the radio and television broadcasting, he switched to the insurance industry, he said, because “it’s fun—I like it.” Gutierrez described himself as a “nonpartisan” who is running because “I have a general mistrust of elected officials.” He added: “We have lots of corruption in the state, even local government. “

Gomez described himself as the product of a rough childhood, part of which was his parents’ agonizing decision to choose between paying the mortgage and meeting the healthcare bills stemming from a pneumonia attack that he suffered at the age of seven years.

The Joe Pesci look-alike confessed that he wasn’t the best student in school and that he was compelled to work jobs at Subway and Target to help his family make ends meet. On the advice of a friend, he attended community college, which, he said, “changed my life.” He ended up transferring to UCLA and, “within 10 years, a kid who had no plans on attending college ended up graduating from Harvard University.”

An advocate for nurses, Gomez is a teacher at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, where, he said, “I try to inspire young students to get the skills necessary to transfer and get a good job.”

Lopez, who described himself as someone committed to public service, was born in East L.A. Like Gomez, he overcame considerable odds to go to a leading four-year college—Pomona University—and, like Gomez again, ended up graduating from Harvard. A former co-chair of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, he lives on Yosemite Way in Eagle Rock and is the president of the East Area Planning Commission as well as the director of a large healthcare nonprofit group.

Q&A Session

None of the candidates squarely addressed the first question put to them: “What is your opinion of Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent budget proposals, and what, if anything, would you do differently.”

Gutierrez, who was asked to respond first, fumbled on several occasions, although he never appeared to lose his confidence. He criticized Brown for axing state funds meant for stimulating local small businesses—funds that, he alleged, were being misused in the first place.

Gomez, who was the next speaker in line, focused on Brown’s sweeping cuts. Without raising taxes, the state would have no choice but to inflict still deeper cuts on the people. “Our system of government and the kind of state we want to live in is being decimated,” Gomez said, adding: “So we have to stop the cuts and raise the kind of revenues to create the state that we’d all be proud of to call home.”

Lopez began his answer by declining to comment in a span of just three minutes on specific aspects of what was, after all, a vast budget. Instead, he shrewdly summed up what Gutierrez and Gomez had said before him: Focus on revenue-raising while trying to reclaim the public’s trust in what we do with the revenues we have.” He also proposed focusing on healthcare for seniors in a community-based setting.

Chavez lauded Brown’s “millionaires’ tax initiative” and quickly shifted gears to what he would do differently from the governor: He would extend a “new jobs tax credit” to employers to boost employment and continue to maintain earned income tax credit. And he would give tax breaks to manufacturing companies that buy new equipment.

The second question focused on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Formerly known as “Obama Care,” it’s hotly contested on the national level. “If this legislation is defeated, would you support the creation of a program on the state level that moves in the direction of universal healthcare?” Nazario asked the contestants.

Gomez, Lopez and Chavez all agreed that they support universal, single-payer healthcare coverage across the state. (“People look at healthcare and they say, ‘how is it going to impact me?’” said Chavez, delivering the first of several political sound bites. “It’s going to impact you when you’re riding the bus, when you’re in the movie theater or when you’re in any kind of crowd.”)

For his part, Gutierrez agreed that universal healthcare is a good idea. “The only problem is, with current healthcare issues, there is fraud,” he said. “So we have got to mitigate the fraud in healthcare, whether at the user level or at the administrative level, [including] doctors.”

Patch will have more from the candidates' forum later Friday.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to candidate Luis Lopez as a "public servant." The intention was to refer to his "public service," not to suggest that he ever was an elected government official.

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