The American Left is in trouble after the apparent authoritarian pivot initiated by President Trump and the Republican-controlled 115th Congress. Democrats have contributed to this age of American authoritarianism by electing career politicians who fail to inspire voters who are hungry for a progressive alternative. If progressives want to claim a seat in Congress to forge a united front against “Trumpism,” they should keep an eye on the race for California’s 34th Congressional District, left vacant since Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraKamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat FDA proposes rule to offer over-the-counter hearing aids MORE resigned in February to become California’s attorney general.
The April 4 special election to replace Becerra presents a challenge to the American Left, locally in Los Angeles and in the nation in general, to reject Trumpism and status-quo Democrats. Twenty-three candidates are on the ballot and, as usual, the Democratic establishment is backing an establishment candidate, California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez.
Like most candidates endorsed by the Democratic machine, Gomez is a career politician without substantial roots in the immigrant rights movement or any other major social movement in the United States. By contrast, progressive front-runner Arturo Carmona is part of the Proposition 187 generation and has spent the last 20 years building grassroots political power in Latino and immigrant communities.
This is the generation of young immigrant and second-generation Latino activists that in 1994 organized walkouts against Prop. 187, which sought to cut vital public services to undocumented people.
Shunning traditional electoral politics, Carmona worked to build grassroots political power with groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the Council of Mexican Hometown Associations (COFEM), and Presente.org, the nation’s premiere online Latino advocacy organization. As the former national deputy political director for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'It's not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms MORE’ presidential campaign, he has an intimate understanding of the progressive political landscape across the country.
Carmona’s run for office has local and national implications. Locally, the race represents the heart of immigrant and inner-city Los Angeles. The 34th District includes most of East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, Downtown, the Pico Union-MacArthur Park, the Koreatown corridor, as well as historic Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Thai and Filipino Towns, among other neighborhoods of the city.
The immigrant communities of inner-city Los Angeles have been the targets of the post-9/11 immigration crackdown that has intensified since the rise of Trump. The district suffers from severe inequality and homelessness, and has been one of the areas most devastated by gentrification in the nation. Yet the district has also been the epicenter of immigrant resistance, from the mega-marches against the Sensenbrenner bill of 2006 to intense protests against police brutality and the spontaneous mass mobilization against the Trump administration, such as the Women’s March on Inauguration Day. It is also home to some of the fiercest anti-gentrification, black, labor, and homeless movements in the nation.
The challenges facing the 34th District also have national implications for progressives. If Carmona gets elected, it would be the first time in recent memory that an organizer and strategic activist from the ranks of the immigrant and social justice Left replaces an establishment Democrat in a global city such as Los Angeles.
In what could be an important example coming into the 2018 Congressional elections, Carmona may be one of the few people in the country who could invigorate the Left and unite urban, immigrant, black, and labor movements within the progressive base of the Bernie Sanders movement against Trumpism. This could be a model for the working class and multi-sector communities in New York City, Chicago, Houston, and others across the country.
Alfonso Gonzales is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of the award-winning book “Reform without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State” (Oxford University Press, 2013).
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