Tony Cárdenas (D-Pacoima) will not seek reelection in 2024, setting up what could become a contested race for his heavily Democratic San Fernando Valley-based seat.
Cárdenas, 60, who was the first Latino to represent the district, told The Times he plans to leave Washington at the end of his term, capping off three decades in public office.
“It will be the first time in 28 years that I’m not on the ballot,” Cárdenas said in a Thursday interview. “The truth of the matter is I thought I could do this just for a few years … I’m just at the age where I have enough energy and experience to maybe do something [different] and have another chapter of a career where I don’t have to go to Washington, D.C., 32 weeks out of the year.”
Cárdenas’ announcement is unlikely to threaten Democrats’ quest to reclaim the House majority. His district, which spans much of the San Fernando Valley, is solidly blue. But his departure creates opportunities for ambitious young Democrats from the Los Angeles area to come to Washington. Cárdenas is backing Luz Rivas, a state Assemblymember who told The Times she would run to replace him.
“Luz is a genuine public servant who has dedicated herself to delivering opportunities for the Valley,” Cárdenas said. “She gets things done, and has always put working families first. I am proud to support Luz for Congress.”
Cárdenas said the lack of nonwhite representation among people in power was a main reason he first ran for public office. Not having role models of color can stifle nonwhite kids’ ambitions for greatness, he said.
“Our teachers, counselors, police officers, would look at us and say you’re never gonna amount to anything,” he said. “I don’t think anyone with those titles should ever tell a child you’re never going to mount anything. But we all experienced that crap, that garbage, those lies.”
Cárdenas was first elected to the Assembly in 1996 at 33. He went on to serve three terms in Sacramento and won three more on the Los Angeles City Council. In 2013, he became the first Latino to represent the Valley in Congress, handily winning election after redistricting removed Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s home in Burbank from the district.
Cárdenas said he’s proud of the work he’s done in his career, notably his efforts to overhaul the state juvenile justice system and ban solitary confinement of minors in federal prisons. As a congressman, Cárdenas was the top sponsor for more than 180 bills, three of which became law, including one in 2021 that addressed crib safety for babies.
In Washington, he served on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and spearheaded an effort to bring a Smithsonian Latino Museum to the National Mall. He chaired BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ fundraising arm, and under his tenure, the committee’s coffers grew, as did the number of elected Latinos in Congress.
Cárdenas was unable to ascend into House party leadership in 2020 and last year, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) bypassed him when picking the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a woman sued Cárdenas, saying that he had sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. The woman later dropped her lawsuit, which Cárdenas’ lawyers characterized as a “total vindication.”
Cárdenas spoke highly of now-Sen. Alex Padilla, his close friend and roommate in Washington. Padilla was also his campaign manager for his first run for office in 1996.
Weeks before election day in 1996, Cárdenas saw an article in the Los Angeles Times, which was left open on Padilla’s desk. The article, which detailed his campaign’s financial struggles, left him feeling low, he said.
Soon after, his sister told him that their father, Andres, had risked his life to save a man who was trapped in a burning field in Stockton decades earlier.
His father never shared that story with him while he was alive.
“I didn’t need that story at that moment,” he said. But “that day, I needed something. And boom, it came.”
“For the first time in my life, I said to myself, this is my community, this is my country,” he said. “And I’m going to finish this. Whether I win or not, doesn’t matter. I’m going to finish this and I’m going to do it right.”
This story will be updated.