SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Los Angeles-area voters go to the polls Tuesday in special elections to fill three open Assembly seats. Two spots are vacant because lawmakers resigned amid harassment claims, potentially making room for more female lawmakers, but candidates say issues related to sexual misconduct at the Capitol aren't top-of-mind for many voters.
Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh resigned amid sexual misconduct accusations, while Sebastian Ridley-Thomas quit citing health issues.
Women could replace all three. At least one female contender in each race has a well-funded campaign.
In interviews, female candidates said it's important to have women in the Legislature but pointed to their leadership credentials as their main qualifications.
If any candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday — an unlikely scenario with crowded fields in all three districts — they win outright. Otherwise the top-two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to a June runoff.
The runoff contests would coincide with the statewide primary June 5.
Seven candidates are vying to replace Bocanegra, who resigned after multiple women said he kissed or groped them without consent. He said he was not guilty of any crimes against the women.
Luz Rivas, a nonprofit founder and engineer, and Antonio Sanchez, a workforce development director, are the race's leading fundraisers.
Former Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, who won the seat from Bocanegra in 2014 before he defeated her and secured the spot again in 2016, also is running.
Three other Democrats — Bonnie Corwin, Yolanda Anguiano and Patrea Patrick — are also on the ballot. Just one Republican, Ricardo Benitez, is running in the heavily Democratic district.
Some voters want the culture surrounding sexual harassment in Sacramento to change, Rivas said, but others are less aware of the allegations against Bocanegra and other lawmakers.
"Some of them don't know the reason he resigned," she said. "I think people want their state legislator to focus on the issues that affect their day-to-day lives."
Sanchez said the allegations against Bocanegra rarely come up in his conversations with voters, who seem primarily concerned with high housing costs.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by a more than a 2-to-1 margin in the three districts. But the region where, demographically, a GOP candidate has the best chance of making the top two is Dababneh's old district, said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor emeritus at California State University, Los Angeles.
The only Republican running in that district is 18-year-old Justin Clark, a college student who works part-time in an ice cream shop. Clark said his campaign comprises mostly friends and family members who are volunteering their time.
His best-funded Democratic rivals are Jesse Gabriel, a constitutional rights attorney, and Tricia Robbins Kasson, a Los Angeles City Council aide.
Democrats Ankur Patel, Daniel Brin, Jeff Bornstein and Ray Bishop are also in the race. Dennis Zine, a no-party-preference candidate, will appear on the ballot but has announced he isn't campaigning.
The Florida school shooting shifted many voters' attention to gun safety, said Larry Levine, who works on Robbins Kasson's campaign. But he said many are still concerned about the Dababneh allegations.
Dababneh resigned after a lobbyist said he pushed her into a bathroom during a Las Vegas social event and masturbated in front of her. He has denied the accusations.
"Some people are very angry that they lack representation because of the way that seat was vacated," Robbins Kasson said.
A pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol persisted under Democrats' watch, and the lawmakers who resigned amid allegations are Democrats. That will have a negative effect on Democrats in the elections, Regalado said, but probably not enough to swing the outcome in favor of Republicans because the districts are so strongly Democratic.
Rivas and Robbins Kasson said they believe electing more women to the Legislature will combat the pervasive sexual harassment in the capital.
First-time candidate Tepring Piquado says the issue hasn't been raised in any candidate forums. Piquado, a neuroscientist, is running to replace Ridley-Thomas.
She and fellow female candidate Sydney Kamlager, a Los Angeles Community College District trustee, are the leading fundraisers in the race. Kamlager has secured many big endorsements, including from the California Democratic Party. Republican Glen Ratcliff and Democrat Grayson Pangilinan are also running for the seat.
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