Amid scandal and legislative wins, Cristina Garcia sees freedom in fearlessness
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia has left no doubt that she’s positioning herself as the most left-wing candidate in the race for the 42nd Congressional District.
During a recent party at her Huntington Park campaign office, she showed a video of legendary farm workers labor organizer Dolores Huerta endorsing her bid.
And on display in the front office was a copy of the 2018 children’s book, “Bringing Back History,” which tells the story of how a fifth grade class at Bell Gardens Elementary convinced Garcia that the forced Mexican deportations during the Great Depression should be taught in all California public schools.
A host of local officials from throughout Garcia’s Southeast Los Angeles district praised her achievements, including a bill that required education of the history of those deportations—which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2015.
A prolific legislator perhaps best known for her unabashed efforts to dispel taboos surrounding women’s menstruation, the former math teacher gained prominence during the Bell corruption scandal, took on a family dynasty to win her seat in the 58th Assembly District—and later had to fight for her political life amid allegations of sexual harassment and mistreatment of employees.
She is now taking on a fellow Democrat, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, for a newly drawn congressional seat in a rare intra-party race that features two prominent politicians with much different political styles.
While Robert Garcia is a careful politician widely seen as the establishment pick—he has been endorsed by the likes of U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Gov. Gavin Newsom, and has out-raised her four-fold—Cristina Garcia is leaning heavily on hometown support and her liberal credentials in what will likely be the most challenging campaign of her career.
In a recent interview, the assemblymember said she draws strength from perhaps her biggest liability, the low point in her political career, in 2018, when she was accused of sexual harassment, sanctioned by her own party and stripped of her committee assignments.
“There’s a lot of freedom in your fearlessness,” she said, adding that the experience allowed her to say “no” to the party leadership. “What else were they going to do to me?”
Even her critics recognized her legislative skills and dedication to her constituents in one of the most polluted and economically disadvantaged Assembly districts in the state.
One person who was very familiar with Garcia’s management style and allegations but who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals summed her up this way: “I wouldn’t want to work for her, but I’d vote for her.”
‘Enough stars had aligned’
Garcia, 44, lives in Bell Gardens, where she grew up. She drives around the city in either an electric car or her cream-colored Vespa. Her unofficial office in town is the Starbucks at the Los Jardines shopping center.
Garcia was raised in what she described as a strong female household. Her parents, both from Mexico, divorced before she was born.
Bell Gardens is in Southeast Los Angeles, known as SELA to its residents. A combination of multiple freeways that serve as major trucking corridors, industrial facilities that process chemicals, manufacturers and three Superfund sites give the area what the California Air Resources Board calls a “high cumulative exposure burden.”
The air quality in SELA has consistently been bad for decades, which has long exposed residents to higher rates of asthma and lung disease and lower life expectancy. Garcia said growing up there has had a profound influence on her political evolution.
“Environmental justice is really important to me,” she said. “But it’s not easy. You’re saying no to big business all the time.”
Garcia was active in politics before she could vote, and spent part of the summer when she was 16 standing outside a Bell Gardens Food 4 Less registering people to vote in advance of anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
Garcia studied both math and politics at Pomona College, then became a math teacher. Though she says she didn’t intend to become a teacher, a shortage of qualified math instructors at LAUSD after she graduated made the offer easy to take. She ended up teaching math and statistics for 13 years at the high school and college level in Los Angeles.
Math remains Garcia’s “happy space,” and she said she still posts math problems on a white board in her Capitol office for her staffers to work through. “For me, it’s magical to get someone through their anxiety over math,” she said.
Garcia left Bell Gardens after graduating from high school, and had no desire to return to Southeast LA. “Unfortunately, at that time, I was under the belief that success meant leaving the Southeast and never coming back,” she recalled in a 2015 white paper for Chapman University.
But in early 2009 her mom suffered a heart attack, and Garcia returned to her home city. Looking around, Bell Gardens seemed to have changed for the worse. The sidewalks were dirty, and economic development seemed nonexistent, she recalled in a 2018 LA Weekly profile.
She began requesting city documents and attending City Council meetings. She bristled at the condescending way the council members spoke to critics during public comment. Garcia filed papers to run for City Council—though she admits today that she was “pompous” back then, thinking she was a teacher who could fix the city.
Garcia ran a spirited campaign, but the political math was against her, and she lost by 114 votes in the November 2009 election.
She had little time to sulk. Around the same time as her campaign, activists in nearby Bell had watched her work in Bell Gardens and asked for her help in obtaining public records. There, the City Council seemed even worse to Garcia than the one in Bell Gardens. But organizing residents was difficult—until July 15, 2010, when the LA Times published a story about Bell’s chief administrative officer earning nearly $800,000 a year.
Within 48 hours, Garcia and her allies had created a new organization called BASTA—Bell Association to Stop the Abuse. They also printed and distributed 15,000 copies of the Times story throughout Bell. They were soon holding rallies with hundreds in attendance.
After a local TV reporter suggested to Garcia that her organization choose a single spokesperson, the BASTA leadership chose Garcia for the job. Her name and face quickly became seen not just throughout Bell, but nationwide, as the city’s cartoonish corruption scandal became a topic of conversation throughout the country.
The media frenzy, combined with BASTA’s activism, eventually resulted in the indictment of eight Bell council members and administrators. Voter participation in the city also tripled, and BASTA leaders got elected to the City Council to replace the four council members voters had recalled.
A year later, flush with experience as a political organizer, Garcia took on incumbent Democrat Tom Calderon in the 58th Assembly District, an arc of Southeast LA cities that included much of Montebello and portions of Norwalk, Cerritos, Commerce and Bell Gardens that is more than 53% Democratic and 67% Latino.
Though Calderon, part of a political dynasty in Southeast LA that stretched back decades, was heavily favored to win, Garcia ran anyway.
“I felt we could actually win, and those opportunities don’t come very often,” Garcia said in a recent interview. “I felt we had enough volunteers from BASTA. I thought enough stars had aligned for once.”
The June 2012 primary against Calderon was very close, but this time the math added up in Garcia’s favor. She defeated him by less than 4 percentage points. (In February 2014, Calderon was indicted on federal corruption charges that also involved his brother Ron; Tom Calderon eventually pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering and was sentenced to a year and a day of prison.)
‘An ugly way to learn a lesson’
With the race seemingly locked up after the primary, Garcia suddenly faced a scandal of her own creation. A month before the election, the Los Cerritos Community News reported that Garcia’s campaign literature had mentioned she had a Ph.D from USC, even though she was still a Ph.D candidate.
“I never said I had a Ph.D,” Garcia said recently, though she admitted that she didn’t correct the literature when she had a chance.
“There’s guilt in that,” Garcia said. “It was an ugly way to learn a lesson.”
In the end, though, it didn’t matter, and Garcia won the Assembly seat in 2012 with more than 70% of the vote.
It would not, however, be the last time Garcia’s actions would come back to haunt her.
In July 2015, Garcia’s sister Maria was appointed Long Beach City Clerk. Her time in office was brief and marked with allegations of harassment and intimidation, according to documents and complaints later obtained by the Long Beach Press-Telegram. About a third of the office staff resigned during her 18-month tenure.
Two complaints from clerk staff centered on a visit Assemblymember Garcia made to the office to visit her sister. “If you think my sister is a b—-, you should try working with me,” the Assemblymember allegedly said, according to the Press-Telegram.
Though she’s freely admitted to peppering her speeches with foul language, Garcia denied having anything to do with her sister’s appointment as city clerk, and denied cursing during her visit to the City Clerk’s office.
“I was there a hot second, and my intent wasn’t to talk to anyone,” Garcia told the Post. “I said something like, ‘She’s nice,’ and that’s it.”
As a prominent and powerful woman in the California Legislature, it wasn’t surprising when Garcia became one of the faces of the #MeToo movement in Sacramento. In an October 2017 New York Times story on Capitol women who had experienced harassment, Garcia said “senior lobbyists and lawmakers” had repeatedly grabbed her during her time as a legislator.
Garcia said the harassment came during “the rounds,” after-hours fundraisers and receptions that are crucial for legislators, at least early in their careers, to make contacts and raise campaign funds. When asked if the harassment still took place, Garcia said no—not because men no longer did that sort of thing, but because Garcia had been at the Capitol so long she didn’t need to make the rounds anymore.
As 2018 began, Garcia questioned whether she should run again. She was chair of the Women’s Caucus, and had enjoyed significant legislative victories.
In addition to AB 617, Brown had signed Garcia’s AB 302, which mandated safe, clean lactation rooms in high schools across California, and AB 701, which rewrote the state’s antiquated definition to rape to finally include all forms of non-consensual sexual assault.
“I thought it would be my last year,” Garcia recalled. “Should I leave at the top?”
As it happened, Garcia spent much of 2018 fighting to salvage her career and reputation.
The allegations against her were serious. A staffer working for Assemblyman Ian Calderon (the nephew of Tom Calderon) told Politico that Garcia had squeezed his buttocks during an Assembly baseball game in 2014. Four other staffers sent a letter to Speaker Anthony Rendon saying Garcia’s workplace was “toxic” and included a lot of alcohol and talk of sex, according to Politico.
Politico also reported that in 2014, she had used anti-gay slurs when referring to then-Assembly Speaker John Perez and had used anti-Asian language. Garcia has said she apologized for doing so.
On Feb. 2, 2018, Garcia issued a statement on the allegations against her, which contained both a denial and acceptance of responsibility.
“Upon reflection of the details alleged, I am certain I did not engage in the behavior I am accused of,” Garcia said. “However, as I’ve said before, any claims about sexual harassment must be taken seriously, and I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard of accountability.”
Garcia ended up taking an extended leave of absence from the Assembly that year, and Rendon removed her from all her committee assignments. Rendon, who has endorsed Garcia’s congressional campaign, declined multiple requests for an interview.
In May 2018, legislative investigators found that Garcia had violated the Assembly’s sexual harassment policy by “commonly and pervasively” using vulgar language when talking to her staff. They also concluded that Garcia asked employees to perform personal tasks and had disparaged elected officials, according to CalMatters.
“Most members would have resigned rather than face the sanctions she got in 2018,” Sacramento political consultant Steve Maviglio said.
Instead, Garcia stayed. Garcia told the Post she needed to clear her name.
“The first few years, I couldn’t lead an office,” Garcia admitted. “I don’t pretend to be perfect.”
Garcia said the first half of 2018, when she was on unpaid leave, was “really painful.”
In that year’s primary election, Garcia faced five Democratic challengers, who were helped by a considerable anti-Garcia campaign fueled by more than half a million dollars in spending from the Building Trades Council, which wasn’t a fan of some of her environmental legislation.
It didn’t matter. Garcia won the primary with 29% of the vote, and won the general election easily with 70% of the vote.
In the years after her sanctioning, Garcia regained committee seats, including a coveted assignment to the powerful Assembly Budget Committee. She also continues to chair the legislative Women’s Caucus.
Garcia has spent her entire legislative career in the governing majority, which has given her both choice committee assignments and increased scrutiny.
She introduced more than a half dozen transparency and good government bills during her first years in the Assembly. Those that became laws in 2014 included measures that imposed stronger penalties on elected officials who misused campaign funds, prevented lobbyists from hosting secret fundraisers in their homes and ended the practice that allowed convicted officials to use campaign funds to pay restitution.
Perhaps her most famous piece of legislation aimed to end the “tampon tax,” or any tax on female hygiene products, earning her the nicknames “Period Princess” and “Tampon Queen,” which she relishes.
In 2020, after years of Garcia unsuccessfully introducing legislation aimed at repealing the sales tax on tampons, Gov. Gavin Newsom finally made menstrual products tax-free in California. The next year, Newsom signed two other Garcia bills, mandating free tampons in every public high school in the state and banning non-consensual condom removal.
“Most legislators don’t even want to say ‘tampon,’ but she talked about it around the clock until she got the job done,” said Sacramento political consultant Maviglio.
For Sara Guillermo, CEO of IGNITE, an Oakland-based political leadership program for women, Garcia’s extensive mentoring of young women, at a time when Latinas make up just 1% of all elected officials in the nation, has been invaluable.
“I think one of the best things that Cristina has done is setting up young women for success,” said Guillermo. “She spends a lot of time making sure there’s a pipeline of young women. She understands how critical it is to open the floodgates of young women.”
But Garcia’s attempts to clean the environment in her district, and others just like it around the state, began to show promise in 2016 with the passage of Garcia’s AB 2153, which reallocated a small portion of the existing battery recycling fee to a fund dedicated to cleaning up the massive lead contamination caused by the now-bankrupt Exide smelting plant in Vernon.
But it would take years before Garcia succeeded in pushing forward legislation that would raise the cleanup fund to a billion dollars, the estimated cost to clean every home in SELA contaminated by Exide.
In May 2017, Garcia and Gov. Brown toured Bell Gardens. She showed Brown the 710 Freeway overpass at Florence, the Commerce rail yard, Bandini Park and the brownfield at Garfield and Gage owned by Montebello Unified School District.
“Today, the governor got to breathe the same air as I have all my life,” Garcia said at the time.
Two months later, Brown signed AB 617, an ambitious bill introduced by Garcia that seeks to reduce pollution in 11 communities across the state, including SELA. Not only was the bill focused on the state’s dirtiest neighborhoods, but it also imposed stronger clean-technology mandates and penalties on large industrial facilities.
Four years later, AB 617’s effectiveness at cleaning up these areas is, at best, difficult to say. Though about 75 tons of fine particle pollution—the equivalent of “75,000 heavy-duty diesel trucks,” according to CalMatters—has been removed from the state’s air since the bill passed, decision-making is still left up to local air regulators. And some communities haven’t seen any pollution reductions.
When Brown signed the bill, Garcia made clear that AB 617 was a step toward cleaner air in places like SELA, but more would have to be done, especially in terms of enforcement.
“This package, though historic, is only a strong down payment,” Garcia said in a news release after Brown signed the bill. “We have much work ahead of us to address regions, like mine, that have been treated like wastelands for generations.”
Though Garcia says the law has given communities like SELA more information about efforts to lower pollution levels, she conceded that there needs to be more accountability and enforcement, especially for the hundreds of communities that weren’t part of AB 617 to begin with.
Garcia said she has introduced two new bills to address some of the shortcomings of the original AB 617. AB 1001 requires a development project’s environmental mitigation to take place in the community directly affected by the project, while AB 1749 requires the state Air Resources Board to identify specified emissions reduction measures and expands reporting requirements for local air districts.
“We should not be disposable for someone else’s profit,” Garcia said. “These bills are about changing the culture about how we see these communities.”
A tough campaign
Registered Democrats hold a strong advantage in the 42nd District, which runs from the Port of Long Beach through East Long Beach, then north through Lakewood, Bellflower and Downey to Huntington Park and Bell Gardens.
Given the registration advantage of Democrats in the district, it’s likely to be a battle between Garcia and Garcia in the June primary.
Cristina Garcia has raised a little over $215,000 in campaign contributions since Jan. 1, according to the Federal Elections Commission. It’s a little over a quarter of what Robert Garcia, her top rival, raised in the same period. The vast majority of the contributions came from individual donors.
Cristina Garcia has drawn endorsements mostly from the district she hopes to represent, more than 30 mayors and city councilmembers from several Southeast Los Angeles cities. Her biggest endorsement came from Rendon, D-Lakewood.
The district that Garcia is running for is a difficult prize. It doesn’t help that, as Garcia’s former BASTA-ally-turned-Bell-Councilmember Ali Saleh pointed out at her party, the accepted political wisdom is that SELA constituents won’t go to the polls.
“I heard it all the time,” Saleh said. “Your community doesn’t vote.”
Garcia said she’s heard that too, but doesn’t care. “We’ve been underestimated for 12 years,” she told the crowd at her recent campaign party.
“I’m running for the communities up and down the 710 Freeway,” Garcia said. “I’m running for communities that don’t have a voice.”
Ironically, should she win, Garcia may be the one left without a voice, if current predictions that Republicans will regain control of the House of Representatives in November hold true.
If that concerns her, she’s not letting on. “I have patience,” she said when asked what she would do if she suddenly finds herself in the minority for the first time in her career. “I can make friends.”
In a methodical rise, Robert Garcia has recast himself as a picture-perfect Democrat
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