How newcomer Ricardo Lara became a Long Beach state senator
By Eric Bradley, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/01/2012 09:26:46 PM PST
Updated: 12/01/2012 09:55:39 PM PST
State Sen.-elect Ricardo Lara, after serving one term in the Assembly, won the seat in the newly drawn 33rd Senate District where almost 50 percent of the households are Latino. Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, who had initially sought the seat, bowed out. (Scott Varley)
LONG BEACH - Not even a candidate with the most powerful political name in Long Beach could stop the star of Ricardo Lara from rising over her home turf.
A first-term Democratic state assemblyman, Lara announced in October 2011 that he would run for the newly drawn 33rd state Senate District, which includes most of Long Beach and Signal Hill, parts of Lakewood and Paramount, and cities south of downtown Los Angeles such as South Gate, Bell, Vernon and Bell Gardens.
There was a problem, however. Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, had previously declared she would run for the successor seat of her termed-out ex-husband, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal.
The potential snare proved minimal. Two weeks later, Lowenthal dropped out, saying in a carefully worded statement that she could "better serve" her constituents by seeking re-election.
Lara went on to defeat his only opponent, a Peace and Freedom Party candidate, by gathering more than 80 percent of the vote last month.
As he gets ready to be sworn in Monday as senator, Lara confirmed what has been obvious to political watchers - that Lowenthal, knowing almost 50 percent of households in the new district are Latino, decided not to make the race a Democrat-on-Democrat brawl.
In an interview last week at SIP at the Long Beach Renaissance Hotel, Lara denied that high-level horse trading was involved in the step-aside.
"The discussion was not about what do you
get, and what do I get," said Lara. "We talked and Bonnie knew the changing demographics of the district, and I look forward to being her partner."
Reached last week, Lowenthal said Lara's account was accurate.
Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican political consultant who now edits the nonpartisan state elections guide, the California Target Book, didn't discount the power of Lowenthal's coalition in a potential showdown with Lara.
Instead, Hoffenblum said, luck was on Lara's side when the California Citizens Redistricting Commission decided to reorient the district by following the Long Beach (710) Freeway, including communities on a northward march toward East Los Angeles.
"If they weren't drawn in a way that favored Latinos, he probably would have had to run against Lowenthal," said Hoffenblum.
Gregarious, displaying a sharp and confident command of issues, Lara looks young, perhaps even younger than his 38 years.
The appearance belies his experience. A native of Commerce, Lara, the son of a factory worker and a seamstress, has been involved in politics since his days in the late 1990s at San Diego State University, where he was student body vice president.
Longtime friend Long Beach Vice Mayor Robert Garcia knew Lara then, when Garcia was student body president at Cal State Long Beach.
Garcia said Lara is tenacious politically, but mixes that with kindness and a sense of humor.
"What stands out the most is when we're together with friends or doing something out in the political world, Ricardo is always the funniest guy in the room," Garcia said.
After college, Lara worked for years as an Assembly staffer, with positions in the office of Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, as Speaker Fabian Núñez's district director and then as communications director for Assemblyman Kevin de León.
He first ran for Assembly in 2008, with opponents including John Pérez,
State Sen.-elect Ricardo Lara, a panelist in an LGBT conference in Long Beach last week, greets a friend. Lara, after serving one term in the Assembly, won the seat in the newly drawn 33rd Senate District where almost 50 percent of the households are Latino. Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, who had initially sought the seat, bowed out. (Scott Varley/Staff Photographer)
the cousin of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Following a meeting at the Getty House, Villaraigosa's official residence, all of Pérez's challengers, including Lara, dropped out.
Though he declined to speak about what happened at the meeting, he candidly discussed his reasoning for his decision, calling politics in Los Angeles "a little more cutthroat."
"Going into that meeting I knew there was no rush for me to go into the Legislature," said Lara. "I was not willing to go against a political machine in L.A. to get elected, so I waited my turn."
That act of political deference has paid off for Lara. He easily dispatched more experienced primary opponents in 2010 with help from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and defeated a Republican in the general election for the 50th Assembly District seat.
Earlier this year, he was selected as chairman of California's Latino Legislative Caucus, the first openly gay leader of the large and powerful group.
In the past two years, Lara has sponsored bills passed into law that increase educational access, including for undocumented students; improve government oversight and transparency; and protect a woman's right to take pregnancy leave, among others.
Lara's predecessor, Hector De La Torre, supported another candidate when Lara ran two years ago.
De La Torre said he objected to Los Angeles politicians forcing their own candidate on the district. Lara was a Boyle Heights resident but moved to Bell Gardens to run for the Assembly.
Now, De La Torre gives Lara good marks for his one term in office.
"I thought he really took the community part of the job seriously, which is important in a district like the 50th with a lot of low-income residents and people with a lot of different needs," De La Torre said.
Lara's top priorities as a senator will be higher education and transportation, he said.
On the education front, he supports stabilizing tuition levels, protecting academic preparation programs for first-generation college students and ensuring financial aid is available for needy students.
Lara said finding solutions to the "juggernaut" Long Beach (710) Freeway will be integral to his transportation efforts.
"How do we make the 710 connect to the 210 (Freeway) so that traffic can flow more easily?" he asked. "How do we mitigate air quality (issues)? Ensuring that we keep trucks off our streets and (not) idling in our communities are big issues."
Lara is cognizant of the trepidation some in and around Long Beach may feel as he readies to represent them in Sacramento for the first time.
At the end of last week's interview, before Lara continued his familiarization with the district by going on a tour of the Port of Long Beach, he said he is grateful for the opportunity voters have given him.
"As someone who grew up in southeast Los Angeles County and seen politics go awry, I'm extra careful about ensuring that, at the end of the day, I need to represent the community and work responsibly to deliver services," said Lara. "I take that to heart."