LOS ANGELES (AP) — California state legislator Jimmy Gomez can count a lot of advantages in his bid Tuesday to claim a vacant U.S. House seat, including the blessing of the state Democratic establishment and a political committee inspired by Bernie Sanders.
But his runoff against fellow Democrat Robert Lee Ahn in the 34th Congressional District has been made competitive by an energized Korean-American community that wants to see Ahn become the first Korean in Congress in nearly two decades.
The special election in the heavily Democratic district that runs through downtown Los Angeles will not change the balance of power in Congress. The seat was held for years by Xavier Becerra, another Democrat who stepped down after being appointed state attorney general.
Rather than party rivalry, the contest has been influenced by racial politics.
Ahn, 41, the son of Korean immigrants, has emerged as a favorite in the district's bustling Koreatown neighborhood. Gomez, 42, the son of Mexican immigrants, is hoping to win a district where half the voters are Latino, compared with a relative sliver of Asian voters.
The district is nearly completely within the city of Los Angeles and voters appeared to be living up to their reputation for mostly ignoring local elections. A low turnout could open the way for surprises.
During the afternoon Tuesday, poll workers at one precinct at a school east of downtown were supervising a row of vacant voting booths. Less than 50 voters had shown up all day.
One of the few was Jesse Narvaez, 23, a college student.
He said he intended to vote for Gomez but when asked about the role of racial politics in the contest, he pointed out that either choice would bring diversity to an overwhelmingly white Congress.
He said he liked Gomez's plans for education, which include support for debt-free college education and protecting programs for needy children.
"As they say, they are the future," Narvaez said, gesturing toward two girls sitting on the school steps.
Ahn is part of what could be described as a political breakout for Koreans, who have not had one of their own in the U.S. House since the late 1990s.
Two years ago, David Ryu became the first Korean-American to hold a City Council seat in Los Angeles. Steven Choi, who was born in South Korea, was elected to the state Assembly in 2016.
As two Democrats, Gomez and Ahn share similar ideas on health care, immigration and resistance to President Donald Trump.
Gomez has emphasized his legislative know-how and broad support within the party ranks and from organized labor.
Ahn, a lawyer and former Los Angeles planning commissioner, has embraced the role of an outsider who wants to shake up politics as usual.
The two Democrats emerged closely matched from a crowded April primary that sent the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party. Gomez snagged 25 percent of the votes, with Ahn at 22 percent.
Gomez is more familiar to voters — his state Assembly district overlaps with parts of the congressional district.
Early mail-in ballots suggested a strong turnout by Koreans. However, Asians make up only about 15 percent of the roughly 300,000 registered voters in the district, which was carried by Bernie Sanders in last year's Democratic presidential primary.
Republicans account for less than 10 percent of voters.