In South L.A. race, same last name but different political styles — and approaches on Israel

A pragmatic progressive and an insurgent activist go head-to-head in a rare open congressional seat

In southern Los Angeles County, the retirements of two octogenarian members of Congress — Democratic Reps. Alan Lowenthal and Lucille Roybal-Allard — have created an opening for candidates from a new generation of party leaders to represent a newly drawn congressional district. 

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (who are not related), both self-described progressive Latinos in their 40s, are the leading candidates to represent the 42nd District, which stretches from Long Beach to working-class communities in Southeast L.A. like Bell Gardens, where Cristina Garcia grew up. 

The deep blue, majority Latino district (which fuses parts of Lowenthal and Roybal-Allard’s districts after California lost a seat in the redistricting process) could see both candidates advance in Tuesday’s so-called “jungle primaries,” in which candidates from all parties compete for one of two slots on the November ballot. 

But despite similarities in their backgrounds — both are also teachers by training — they differ in their approaches to governing, as well as their views on the U.S.-Israel relationship, according to Jewish Insider’s interviews with both candidates and with California political observers. 

“When it comes to Cristina Garcia, there’s absolutely no middle ground. You either love her or you hate her,” Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said of the candidate’s “firebrand” approach to politics. “She’s an inspirational figure to many, and a very polarizing figure to others. On the other hand, Robert Garcia is seen much more as a calmer, stabilizing presence.”

When he was elected in 2014, Robert Garcia was Long Beach’s first gay mayor and its first Latino mayor, as well as its youngest-ever mayor. “Garcia’s victory spoke to how the demographics of Long Beach had changed,” said Andrew Lachman, an L.A.-based Democratic activist and president of Democrats for Israel California. The city, centered around a major commercial port, used to be more of a white working-class hub, but is now more than 43% Latino, according to U.S. Census data.

L-R Police Chief Robert Luna, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and City Manager Tom Modica provide an update on efforts to reduce gun violence in the city in Long Beach on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

Robert Garcia kicked off his campaign with a focus on his efforts leading the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its strong vaccine rollout. His launch video highlighted his mother, who died of COVID-19 and who brought him to the U.S. from Peru when he was five.

“My family always taught me to always give back to this incredible country that’s given us so much,” he told JI. Robert Garcia has said that he initially registered to vote as a Republican because his family gained citizenship as a result of the immigration reform bill President Ronald Reagan signed, until he changed his registration to the Democratic Party in 2007.  

No public polling for the race has been released, but Christina Garcia enters the primary with a significant fundraising disadvantage. As of the end of March, she had raised roughly a quarter of Robert Garcia’s $820,000. But Christina Garcia overcame a fundraising deficit and a dearth of endorsements in her first race for the state Assembly in 2012, when she was outspent seven-to-one by her Democratic opponent, whom she defeated in the primary. 

Cristina Garcia’s grassroots, insurgent-style politics have earned her many supporters and a plum position as chair of the Assembly’s Women’s Caucus. But her brash, loose-lipped manner has also gotten her in trouble. 

In 2018, she was removed from her committee assignments by the Assembly speaker after a former staffer for another member accused her of groping him against his will while she was intoxicated. (A report found that Christina Garcia treated the staffer inappropriately, but that the encounter did not involve groping.) She has also been accused of pressuring employees to play “Spin the Bottle” with her. 

That same year, she admitted to using the term “homo” to refer to former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who is gay, but said, “I don’t know that I’ve used it in derogatory context.” She denied an allegation from another former staffer that she had used another slur to describe a gay person. Pérez told Politico in 2018 that he “admonished” Cristina Garcia in 2014 for using derogatory language about Asian Americans. “This makes me feel like I want to punch the next Asian person I see in the face,” she reportedly said after Asian-American activists in California mobilized against an affirmative action policy. 

“Cristina Garcia has a history of disparaging remarks directed against marginalized communities,” said Rachel Rosen, communications director of Democratic Majority for Israel, whose affiliated PAC endorsed Robert Garcia.

The mayor is positioning himself as a coalition builder, and has won the backing of a wide range of Democratic leaders across California, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Alex Padilla, and dozens of local and national advocacy groups. He has also been endorsed by several federal politicians, including Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). 

“​​Robert Garcia is a little more of a calculated politician. [Cristina Garcia is] more of, like, the on-the-streets activist,” said a California political professional who has worked in Sacramento. 

“I’m not someone that is an absolutist,” Robert Garcia told JI. “I don’t think we need 100% of what we want all the time to actually have success. I tell folks all the time, if you get 80% of what you want, take it.” 

Cristina Garcia first won election to the California Assembly in 2012 after getting involved in grassroots advocacy against local corruption, and she has maintained her image as an activist. Most of her endorsements come from local officials in her Assembly district, but she has also earned support from a handful of nationally known progressive leaders, including the labor leader Dolores Huerta and Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who recently lost a high-profile congressional race in Cleveland. 

“I think I was always going to be an advocate. That’s ingrained in me,” she told JI, referring to an advocacy journey that began as a high schooler when she campaigned against a ballot initiative that would have targeted undocumented immigrants like her father. 

The race has drawn the attention of national political action committees who are betting big on Robert Garcia. Outside spending in the race has exceeded $1.7 million, with all of it supporting Robert Garcia or opposing Cristina Garcia. 

“​​Robert Garcia is a little more of a calculated politician. [Cristina Garcia is] more of, like, the on-the-streets activist,” said a California political professional who has worked in Sacramento. 

The bulk of the outside spending in the race has come from Protect Our Future PAC, an organization funded mainly by Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old billionaire who founded the crypto exchange FTX, as well as PACs affiliated with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional LGBTQ Caucus. 

Robert Garcia has also attracted the support of pro-Israel backers, including DMFI, which has spent $65,000 on digital advertising targeting Cristina Garcia. AIPAC’s PAC also endorsed Robert Garcia, and AIPAC-affiliated activists in L.A. have hosted fundraisers for him. The more liberal J Street has not endorsed in the race, but a spokesperson said the group has met with some of the candidates and is considering getting involved in the general election.  

Robert Garcia told JI that his support for Israel has developed out of conversations with Jewish constituents and as a result of a trip to Israel with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. What makes it personal, he said, is that he can travel there with his husband.

“For me, what’s really important about our relationship with Israel is Israel is the one place in the region where me, as an openly gay person, can walk around with my husband, and know that you are supported and that you are safe, and that you can be openly gay,” he said. “That’s something that is important, I think, as a progressive.”

Since Robert Garcia was elected Long Beach mayor in 2014, international relations and global trade have factored heavily into his work. As the seventh-largest city in California, with a population of 465,000, Long Beach is also home to the second-largest container port in the U.S., after the Port of Los Angeles. 

“Interacting and having an understanding of trade and national relationships has been really important, as has the honor of representing our community, our city, in numerous places across the world,” said Robert Garcia, who has traveled to a dozen countries on trade missions since becoming mayor. 

Robert Garcia understands that being a member of Congress “includes world issues, global issues, international issues, and that’s always — that’s tough sometimes for people who want to jump to the congressional role in Washington, D.C., to understand what their new responsibilities will be,” said Peter Villegas, a business executive who is active in Latino and pro-Israel advocacy. 

Cristina Garcia has not made international relations a large part of either her campaign or her time in Sacramento, and she told JI that she is in the early stages of learning about foreign policy issues and Israel in particular. She is also building relationships with the Jewish community for the first time, she said.

“It hasn’t been something where I’ve had too many opportunities to delve in,” she said. “On Jewish issues, I’m learning they’re a part of my district. I think it’s naive to think I don’t have any Jewish people in my community.”

Lachman told JI that Cristina Garcia did not respond to a questionnaire that the LA chapter of his group, Democrats for Israel California, sent her, although some members of the organizations had private discussions with her. 

“I think that that just kind of speaks to the fact that she’s not necessarily as reliable a communicator, or reliable with the Jewish community,” said Lachman. 

In 2016, when Cristina Garcia chaired the Committee on Accountability, she voted against advancing the “California Combating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel Act of 2016,” which provided a detailed explanation of California’s ties to Israel and laid out why lawmakers viewed the BDS movement as problematic, and not in California’s best interests. 

California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia talks as California Governor Gavin Newsom listens during a media availability at a vaccination site at South Gate Park, South Gate in Los Angeles County on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 in South Gate, Calif. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).

“When I was seeing that discussion, and who was leading those discussions and some of my far-right colleagues, it’s not that easy, right?” Cristina Garcia told JI. “I don’t want to minimize it. But it was like, ‘Well, wait, what’s going on here? Are you hijacking a movement or is this, like, legit out here?’” (Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who introduced the legislation, is a Democrat.)

She later voted for the measure when it appeared on the Assembly floor in a watered-down version that removed much of the language opposing BDS. “It ultimately required more proof that an organization engaging in BDS was doing so out of antisemitic intent,” said a person with knowledge of the California legislative process. Specifically, the final bill said that for people submitting bids for state contracts, any policy they have “against any sovereign nation or peoples,” including Israel, is not used to discriminate. All references to BDS were erased from the bill, including from its title. She abstained from the final concurrence vote on the measure, which occurred after it had been approved by the State Senate.

“I think as time has passed by, you could have a tool, but is that tool advancing the common goal of respecting the two-state movement? And as we look more into the BDS movement, it doesn’t recognize the two-state solution,” Cristina Garcia told JI. “I would say that’s where over time, I’ve become more nuanced in that.”

She suggested she might vote against a measure condemning BDS if it were to come before Congress. 

“I think I would ask the questions differently, and depending on the answers, I would ask myself, Is this a blanket against using the power of boycotts and divestment towards the goal of peace or a two-state solution and getting there? And I think, depending on that, I would,” she said.

Cristina Garcia did not give a straightforward answer when asked whether she personally supports the BDS movement. 

“I haven’t been confronted with that. I support in general — it’s different, I think, a movement, versus, like, are you going to use boycotts and divestment and towards what goal,” she said. “Who owns the BDS movement, and how do they define their end goal? That’s actually a question, a real question I have for you.”

Robert Garcia said he would oppose any congressional measure that supports BDS. “Obviously, I don’t support BDS,” he said. “Obviously her vote, I think her position speaks for itself.”

Omar Barghouti, the founder of the BDS movement, has said he does not believe in a two-state solution. 

“If that’s your position, then no, I don’t support the movement. Like, my position is the two-state [solution]. So if that’s your position, then I can’t support your movement. That’s the premise I’m going to start from,” said Cristina Garcia. 

As an activist, she said, “the idea of a boycott is important, it’s an important tool, and the idea of divestments are important tools, where, you know, I supported, I think, to divest, you know, in things with the Turkish government, for example here at the state legislature.” (She was referring to a 2019 bill that requires the state to divest its pension fund from Turkish bonds.)

Robert Garcia said he would oppose any congressional measure that supports BDS. “Obviously, I don’t support BDS,” he said. “Obviously her vote, I think her position speaks for itself.”

Cristina Garcia’s overall approach to Israel, she explained, will involve asking, “How do we maintain or get to a place of peace with a two-state solution? And if I’m presented with a policy or an action, will this get me there, or will this put me further away? Will this inflame sentiments and feelings, or will this move it forward without losing someone’s right to whatever opinion they might have out there?”

She suggested that Congress could use its financial power to make a difference in the region.

“I think the fact that we have resources, we have purse strings, and they’re really powerful, can help with that two-state solution,” she said. 

When asked whether Congress should place restrictions or conditions on the $3.8 billion in annual security assistance to Israel, she demurred. 

“I think there’s humanitarian aid, and I don’t see restrictions on that,” Cristina Garcia explained. (A very small percentage of U.S. aid to Israel — less than $10 million — is used for humanitarian purposes, to help Israel resettle refugees.) 

“I guess for me, as I’ve been doing my homework, and we talk about the occupied territory, like, Am I doing more damage or not in that occupied territory with these dollars and this aid?” she asked. “But I do think we need to aid there. I don’t feel I’m in a position to tell you like, Oh, these are the pressures that we should or shouldn’t have. I think that those are important questions.”

She added that this is an issue where she would like to do more research.

“I’ve been on the [campaign] trail since, like, December 23. I haven’t had time to fully do my homework,” she said. “Where I haven’t done my homework, I stop.”

Cristina Garcia was unfamiliar with Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, and did not say how she would have voted on legislation passed last year authorizing $1 billion in supplemental funding for Iron Dome, but said she supports “security aid to defend themselves from Hamas.” 

“I think making [Israel] stronger is a good thing, and just ensuring that as we’re making them stronger, we’re not aiding in the occupation of territories,” she said after hearing an explanation of the legislation. “I’m OK with this. We have seen more attacks, and I want to keep people safe. But how do we do it in a way that we are guaranteed that it’s [going] to that and not misused?” 

Cristina Garcia said she would probably support President Joe Biden’s efforts to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, but admitted “I haven’t done enough homework there. I feel like as a Democrat, you’re like, well, our Democratic presidents are leading this,” she said, referring to Biden and former President Barack Obama. “So I guess I want to be supportive of that.”

Robert Garcia indicated his support for the 2015 nuclear agreement, which the U.S. withdrew from in 2018. “I’m hopeful that we will be able to move forward in a way that sticks to as much of the original Obama plan as possible, which I think was something that was presented, obviously, that received broad support,” he told JI. (The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was supported by the majority of Democratic representatives, but votes in favor of it failed in both the House and Senate, which were controlled by Republicans at the time. A September 2015 Pew poll taken before the congressional votes found that 21% of Americans supported the agreement.)

In California’s top-two primaries, the odds of both Garcias advancing to the general election are high, although they aren’t the only candidates running. The sole Republican in the race is John Briscoe, who serves on the school board of Ocean View School District in Orange County. Four other Democrats are running, including an engineer and a hospital chaplain.

Even if one of the Garcias takes a majority of the votes on Tuesday, Raphael Sonenshein, executive of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said it is too soon to count either candidate out.

“I think what you’ve got is a part of the district [that] has always been the underdog with a candidate who has always been an underdog and is surprisingly competitive,” he said of Cristina Garcia, “and then Long Beach, which is a little bit more dominant in regional politics, with a very strong candidate.”

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