In his six years in the state Assembly, Jimmy Gomez wrote legislation that expanded California’s landmark family leave law, served as Democratic whip and chaired the powerful appropriations committee.
Gomez has spent his entire political career as a member of the majority party. When he’s sworn in as central and northeast Los Angeles’ newest member of Congress in the coming weeks, he’ll be the most junior Democrat — 194th out of 194 — in Congress.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy, you know, leaving a Democratic supermajority state to go to the superminority in Congress. They say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Gomez said at his primary campaign kickoff in Eagle Rock in February.
Gomez, 42, will be free of the term limits in the state Legislature that can stymie political ambitions, but he’ll have to find a path forward in a Congress dominated by the opposing party. Even if Democrats win back control, he’ll have hundreds of more senior and just as eager colleagues ahead of him in line.
In Sacramento, Gomez was known as a “progressive’s progressive,” said former Assembly Democratic Caucus director Charu Khopkar. Gomez was part of the historically large freshmen class that came to Sacramento in 2012 after Assembly districts were redrawn, and he quickly rose to become majority whip.
“He was an excellent fundraiser. He came out of organized labor, and he knew that personal relationships matter. But he took his policy work seriously,” Khopkar said.
Although it can take years for a bill to get a hearing in Washington, almost every proposed bill gets at least a hearing in Sacramento, and often a vote in the full Assembly, said Khopkar, who worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer for seven years.
In Congress, “Jimmy is going to find that his legislative work is going to be much more frustrating. He’s going to realize very quickly that being in a minority is significantly different,” Khopkar said. “Even if Democrats were in charge it’s not as easy to come up with a legislative concept and have it considered and become law.”
As chairman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee, Gomez had the power to review, and even stall, most bills that might have a financial impact on the state.
In Washington he’ll be the lowest-ranked member of whatever committees House leaders assign him to. He’ll get a few moments to question witnesses at the end of hours-long hearings, often after most of his colleagues and the media have left.
California members’ history in Sacramento
- Twenty-two of 39 House Democrats served in Sacramento before coming to Washington.
- Nine of California’s 14 Republican members served terms in Sacramento before being elected to Congress.
- Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was sworn in as Assembly Speaker in 1998, making her the first black woman in the country to hold such a high-ranking legislative position.
- Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) served 24 years in the Legislature, split between the Assembly and Senate, before coming to Congress.
- Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) was the first Republican to lead a committee in nearly a decade when he was picked by a Democratic speaker to lead the Veterans Affairs committee in 2010.
Instead, he’ll have to rely on the bully pulpit that comes with a higher-profile office to draw attention to climate change, healthcare and other topics he cares about.
“I know I’m not going to be the chair of appropriations any time soon… but I feel if I can start raising the issues maybe people will start thinking about the issues differently,” Gomez said.
Twenty-two of 39 House Democrats served in Sacramento before coming to Washington. Freshman Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) just made the transition. He served 14 years in Sacramento split between the Assembly and Senate, and was sworn into Congress in January.
“It’s going from [being] a big fish in a little bowl to being a little fish in a big pond,” Correa said.
In his first six months, Correa has managed to get a bill through the House that would require the Department of Homeland Security to change how it buys new products, and got eight amendments attached to the Homeland Security reauthorization bill, an unusually successful start for a freshman in the minority.
Still, Correa was surprised by how differently Sacramento and Washington work, even down to the details of parliamentary procedure, and how slowly legislation moves.
“I’ve just had to relearn the whole legislative process top to bottom,” Correa said. “There’s a lot of things I’ve had to unlearn from the state to the federal.”
Some new members make sure they are visible during news conferences, are conspicuously available to reporters for interviews or create a splash on social media. Some put their heads down and spend the first few months getting to know the mechanics behind the scenes.
So far, Gomez is not keeping his head down. He penned an op-ed for the Washington Post, giving advice to his party on how to succeed in the Trump era.
Gomez isn’t entirely new to Washington. He helped write legislation as a legislative assistant in former Rep. Hilda Solis’ office for several months in the early 2000s.
“He comes to Washington, I believe, not with a Pollyanna view,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), who served 24 years in the Legislature. “Some members are prepared for it and they see it coming and some of them are surprised, but I think he knows it’s not going to be the way it was in the Assembly.”
During a trip to Washington in mid-June to check out his new office, Gomez quizzed Costa and other California members over lunch about the difference between Sacramento and D.C. They warned that as a member of the minority, it’s important to prioritize passing legislation over getting the credit for it.
Getting to Washington is worth being a member of the minority for a while, several of them said. Congressional seats don’t open that often — Xavier Becerra held Gomez’ central Los Angeles seat for 24 years before becoming California’s attorney general.
“In a tough time like this where we do have a president whose been very divisive …that’s where the fight is and in the end that’s where I think the important work is to be done,” Gomez said after his victory. “I don’t believe we’re going to be in this situation forever. Time will change who is in power.”
Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.