In deep-blue 34th Congressional District, Democrats battle over who is more progressive

NBC4 commentator Conan Nolan, left, and Telemundo anchor Dunia Elvir moderate a forum featuring the two candidates running in the 34th Congressional District, Robert Ahn, second from right, and Jimmy Gomez, right.
NBC4 commentator Conan Nolan, left, and Telemundo anchor Dunia Elvir moderate a forum featuring the two candidates running in the 34th Congressional District, Robert Ahn, second from right, and Jimmy Gomez, right.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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Two Democrats running for the U.S. House seat vacated by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra are not far apart on major issues. Instead, both aim to convince voters that he's more to the left than the other.

In the special runoff election on June 6, state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez and former Los Angeles city planning commissioner Robert Ahn sparred Thursday night during a lightly attended candidates' forum at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.

Both shared similar party positions on such national issues as immigration, health care, and standing up to the Trump administration. Perhaps the most contentious point between the two candidates centered on just how progressive the other really is.

Ahn portrayed Gomez as a corporate insider Democrat, beholden to special interests.

Regarding that charge, Gomez said: "How is it that I have taken on all of these issues, taken on the corporations, passed paid family leave, increased the minimum wage, protected Planned Parenthood?"

Gomez characterized Ahn as too willing to capitulate to Republicans.

He jabbed at Ahn, who criticized Gomez for supporting a state gas tax hike, saying "that kind of argument is something a Republican would say." The Los Angeles Times reported Ahn had changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2012.

Responding to the suggestion, Ahn, who is an attorney, said negotiation is necessary, as the candidates talked about saving key components of the Affordable Care Act.

"We have a numbers problem in Congress," Ahn said, referring to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. “Until we’re able to take back the House, we are going to have to talk to the other side. …We have to figure out where we can push and we can pull.”

Gomez insisted Democrats should stand their ground on key Obamacare provisions, suggesting Ahn wouldn't be up to the task.

“Capitulation will lead to failure," Gomez said. "So that is why I think there is a big difference between my opponent and myself. I understand the politics of Washington, D.C. You need to hold firm, you need to work with your colleagues, and you need to throw elbows."

A sharp exchange erupted over the proposal for a national single-payer health system.

Ahn, like Gomez, said he'd eventually like to see a single-payer system. But he added later that "as long as we have special interests like private insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies, that are funding the likes of my opponent, we're never going to get there."

Gomez responded: "If I was such a corporate Democrat, why would the California Nurses Association, one of the leading advocates for a single-payer system, endorse me?"

The district covers a large area of northeast, east and central Los Angeles and takes in communities that include Eagle Rock, Boyle Heights, Koreatown, Highland Park, and El Sereno. Diverse but heavily Latino, the district is also deeply Democratic: it voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the last presidential primary.

Ahn and Gomez broke free of a crowded 23-candidate primary to make it into the June 6 runoff.

Gomez has drawn the support of prominent Latino Democrats, including state Senate leader Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. The Los Angeles Times has also endorsed him, calling him the only candidate "up to the job of serving in Congress during this uniquely challenging time for California Democrats."

Ahn has won the backing of former L.A. City Council member Michael Woo, the first Asian-American elected to the council. Ahn also has the endorsement of the Los Angeles Daily News. The paper stated his "business experience and origins outside the Democratic pipeline give him a chance to bring something different to the L.A.-area congressional delegation."

If he succeeds in his bid, Ahn would become the first Korean-American in Congress. If Gomez wins, he would continue a tradition of Latino representation in the district.