Luis Alejo hugs supporters late Tuesday night as early results showed him leading in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 28th District state Assembly seat. Alejo held his election night party at Teamsters Hall on Market Street in Salinas. (Photo by Jon Chown)
Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo will have a shot at making history in November after securing the Democratic nomination for the 28th District state Assembly seat by defeating rivals Janet Barnes and Francisco Dominguez. Should he win, Alejo would be the first state Assembly member to come from Watsonville in the past 30 years.
“This was the key race to win,” Alejo said Wednesday. “Now that we’ve won it, we have even more confidence in November. But we never take anything for granted.”
Though thousands of ballots had yet to be counted Wednesday evening, Alejo had 52 percent of the vote and Barnes had 35 percent, a margin that won’t be erased by the remaining votes.
Hundreds of supporters cheered, clapped and hugged Alejo Tuesday night at his election party. By 10 p.m., Alejo was well ahead in early returns and the crowd at the Teamsters Hall in Salinas was already celebrating. Trumpets blasted as a mariachi band played and everyone reached out for a piece of the young mayor as he waded through the sea of well-wishers. By late Wednesday, Alejo had tallied 9,726 votes to Barnes’ 6,575. Dominguez garnered just 12.4 percent of the vote with 2,314.
Alejo said Wednesday that after the absentee ballots were counted and he was leading, he was pretty certain the night would be his.
“I told my crew early on in the day that the early numbers are the most difficult — the voters are generally more conservative. But when absentee numbers came in and we were ahead, that was a very good sign,” he said. “We knew our numbers would only get better.”
By midnight, with 75 percent of the vote counted and Alejo more than 10 points ahead, Alejo said he could finally relax and just enjoy the moment.
“We never thought we would win by this margin in all four counties,” Alejo said.
Across town from Alejo’s party, Barnes’ election party had basically closed down by 10 p.m., her dream of representing the district mostly dashed before she went to bed. Held at Gino’s Restaurant in Salinas, less than a dozen supporters were left and as results continued to look worse, the number dwindled.
“At least we won’t have Alejo on City Council next year,” said Watsonville resident Nick Rivera, who worked for Barnes’ campaign.
Barnes was much more gracious in defeat. In a phone interview Wednesday, she thanked her supporters for their votes and congratulated Alejo on his victory.
“We worked very hard and had a great time,” she said. “This is a democracy and the people decide — and they decided.”
Barnes said that in hindsight, she wishes she had started her campaign earlier.
“I waited until November, but I decided I would run in May. I should have started raising money then,” she said. “But I think we did a very respectable job. I wish Alejo well.”
Barnes said she had not considered running as an independent.
“I can’t even imagine that,” she said. “It didn’t even enter my mind.”
Alejo earned the nomination with widespread support throughout the district. In Santa Cruz County, he had 56.5 percent of the vote; in Monterey County he had 53.7 percent; in San Benito County he had 54.6 percent, and in Santa Clara County he had 45.8 percent. Those numbers make him an overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November when he faces Robert Bernosky, who won the Republican nomination with just 5,875 votes and 57 percent of the GOP vote. Bernosky, from Hollister, has a background in finance, having served as chief financial officer for several local companies. But he faces a tough road because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2 to 1 in the district.
Alejo said he didn’t think he would win the nomination by such a margin. He thought it would be a tight race, but said that the negative campaign run against him backfired and hurt his opponent more. In contrast, he said, his positive campaign focused on creating jobs, helping families and making neighborhoods safer, which really appealed to voters.
“We kept our message positive and focused on the issues that voters care most about,” he said.
Alejo’s strong showing even surprised some of his supporters. Santa Cruz County 4th District Supervisor Tony Campos, who endorsed Alejo, said he thought Alejo would win, but not by so great a margin.
“I thought he would get about 48 percent of the vote,” Campos said. “I’m ecstatic that he won. I endorsed him because he’s from Watsonville and highly educated. If you live in Watsonville, you’ve got to get somebody from Watsonville to represent you.”
The last person from Watsonville to serve in the Assembly was Henry Mello, who left in 1980 to serve in the Senate. Alejo and Mello share the same birthday, March 27, but Alejo was born 50 years later.
“This win was historic for a couple of reasons,” Alejo said. “It was also the first state Assembly campaign on the Central Coast that young people really helped to win.”
Alejo said college and high school students spent many hours campaigning for him.
“They were at the heart of my campaign and they helped us win,” Alejo said. “The team we have put together is ... a really great combination of people from different backgrounds and different ages working together. It was truly a victory for the familes and people of the district.”
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