Despite moving to the 26th District at the last minute after the leading Democratic candidate dropped out, Julia Brownley was able to notch a pickup for the Democrats for the seat of retiring GOP Rep. Elton Gallegly. In a newly drawn district that favored Democrats, her campaign emphasized improving educational opportunities as a solution to a struggling economy.
Brownley grew up in Virginia in a household of Republicans, although she said in an interview that her parents were “open-minded, fair, and accepting of other schools of thought.” It wasn’t until she went to Washington D.C.’s all-girls Mount Vernon College (later incorporated into George Washington University) that she began to consider her personal politics. There, shaped by the emerging women’s movement and the war in Vietnam, Brownley said she felt at home in the Democratic Party.
After college she pursued a career in marketing, earning a master’s degree from American University and then working as a sales manager for several large companies. The career introduced her to her husband (they are now divorced) and brought her to California, where she remained.
Brownley’s experiences with her children helped to push her into politics. Her daughter, Hannah, suffered from dyslexia, and working with the school system to improve Hannah’s education inspired Brownley to run for the school board in 1994. She stayed on the board for 12 years, eventually becoming president.
Frustrated with insufficient funding for the school district, Brownley decided to head to Sacramento. In 2006, she won a seat in the Assembly, where she has remained ever since. There, Brownley chaired several educational committees, advocating for further investment in the state’s schools at every level. She worked on legislation to prevent human trafficking, to improve the foster care system, and to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastic bags. She also worked to pass a state version of the Disclose Act that would require more disclosure of political donors.
In the race to succeed Gallegly, Democrats had counted on Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, but he dropped out before the filing deadline. Brownley moved from Santa Monica and beat a high-profile primary opponent in Linda Parks, a Republican-turned-independent hoping to steal moderate votes from Brownley. Nearly $1 million in advertising, including a $600,000 television ad buy from a Democratic super PAC, helped Brownley move through to the general election against state Sen. Tony Strickland.
Throughout the race, Strickland attacked Brownley for moving to the district in order to run, while emphasizing his own history in the area. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups contributed to his campaign, leading Brownley to call him a captive of “Washington special interests.” The Los Angeles Times endorsed her, saying that the “ideologically rigid” Strickland lacked the “real-world pragmatism” of other Southern California Republicans.
Erin Mershon contributed to this article.