CVIndependent

Tue12102019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It was late in June when La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano met two other students—Diego Martinez, from West Valley High School in Hemet, and Julia Melendez-Hiriart, from Ramona High School in Riverside—at the Southwest Airlines terminal at the Ontario airport.

The three students had never before met in person, but they were flying together to Washington, D.C., for the 2019 R2L NextGen week-long program, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).

The program—launched in 2011 by the CHCI with the support of founding sponsor State Farm—has helped bring 533 students to Washington, D.C., over the past nine years. Two trips this summer brought 103 students from 17 different areas of the country to our nation’s capital to learn about the federal government, meet important leaders, visit historic sites, and develop a deeper understanding about how they can make positive changes in their communities. Macy’s provided gift cards to students before their trips to D.C. so they could purchase professional clothing.

“It was started to help develop young high school leaders as they emerge and become more active on college campuses,” said Dennis Gonzalez, the CHCI’s director of leadership programs, about the R2L NextGen program. “They learn more about how government works, as well as civic engagement and advocacy.”

Getting accepted to participate in the program is no easy task.

“We had over 500 applications this year,” Gonzalez said.

Luevano said she had to go through a follow-up interview after the application process, which included submitting a written essay, a resume and a letter of recommendation.

“I had been contacted a few times to try to set up a call for an (application) interview,” Luevano said, “and it kind of wasn’t working out because of the time difference: After school here, it was 3 p.m., and in D.C., it was 6 p.m., which was after work hours. But finally, I got the call. … He was asking me questions just like any other interview. Then, just as it ended, the program director told me, ‘Well, you’ve been accepted.’ I was really shocked. I had never been part of a program that was so big. … Getting your round-trip transportation and your housing and meals covered in another city across the country—it was such a great opportunity.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz said he enjoyed meeting Luevano and the other participating students.

“Lizbeth told me that this was the first time that she ever flew on a plane,” Ruiz said during a phone interview. “She’s also from a farmworker family, like mine. So, the experience and the opportunity (for her) to find out how great and expansive the world is—to meet other students from across the country, and to expand her understanding of our country—is really remarkable. It could be a life-changer.”

We asked Luevano about the highlights of her time in Washington, D.C.

“I think the biggest was when we went to Capitol Hill, and we got to speak with our representatives. We (three) actually met with staff members of Rep. Mark Takano, who represents part of Riverside County, but not the Coachella Valley,” she said. “The other students met with the staffs of their representatives. It was pretty great just walking around. Some of the students even got to meet AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and I was really jealous that we didn’t get the chance to.”

The more down-to-earth components of the experience left a strong impression on Luevano.

“Another big part of it was the network that we kind of created,” she said. “At one point, Jacqueline Lopez, from Dr. Ruiz’s office, was at a panel discussion, and some of the people on the panel were from the Coachella Valley, too. It was really interesting that people from our background in Indio were in D.C., having this political engagement, and being right where all these big decisions are being made.

“A great thing about CHCI is that it exposes you to a broader definition of ‘Hispanic,’” Luevano said. “I’m so used to thinking about Hispanics as being Mexican, because that’s just what the majority is here where I live. So being around Cubans, Puerto Ricans and people from the Dominican Republic, and being able to talk to them—you definitely find cultural differences. Like: I always carry these packets of Tapatio hot sauce in my bag, and I’m so used to everyone knowing what it is. When they didn’t get what it was, it blew my mind. My roommates were two people from L.A., and another person from Miami, Fla.; she was Cuban. We all got to know each other really well.

“While we were there, we were able to get back to our hotel in time to watch the first Democratic Party presidential-candidate debates. Just being in a room with all of these individuals and being able to discuss anything that came into our mind, it was really great.”

The experience clearly made a huge impression on Luevano—and she made an impression on the people with whom she interacted.

“The students who come are really great, fantastic young people,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes I’ll be chatting with them, and I start wondering what I was doing at their age, and if I was being productive. When they’re having conversations with national leaders or they’re meeting with different presenters, they ask amazing questions. They’re very insightful, motivated and impassioned about what they’re doing.

“Even though Lizbeth seemed to be very quiet at first, once she got going, she became very active during the week. I think that the chance for her to connect with all the other students who attended was a great opportunity. I think what this program does is let all the kids know that they’re not alone, and that there are other kids who are really engaged in this stuff, too. Also, it gives them a glimpse into what college may be like, and I think they get more excited about their future opportunities once they’ve participated in the program.”

Ruiz said he was impressed by Luevano.

“Lizbeth is a very bright, intelligent, motivated, dedicated and caring person who wants to better herself in order to serve the community,” Ruiz said. “I’m proud that she is a resident of the Coachella Valley, because I know that she will accomplish her dreams and come back to the Coachella Valley and serve our communities. I’m really excited about this program and the opportunity it offers. Seventy percent of the students that go through this program become first-generation college students. That’s pretty remarkable.”

Luevano is part of that 70 percent.

“I’m applying to liberal-arts colleges on the East Coast to get out of my comfort zone and go further away,” Luevano said. “I’m looking into Bowdoin (in Maine) and Swarthmore (in Pennsylvania). I’m just going to be confident and apply.”

Published in Politics

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Anyone who spent the weekend at the California Democratic Party’s convention—watching 14 White House contenders try to impress what one congresswoman called “the wokest Democrats in the country”—observed the following: Saturday’s most rapturous cheers went to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who declared “the time for small ideas is over," advocated “big, structural change” and said “I am here to fight.” Sunday’s thunderous applause went to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he demanded there can be “no middle ground” on climate change, healthcare or gun violence.

Those who strayed from progressive orthodoxy did so at their peril.

Ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper dismissed the push for single-payer health care by insisting “socialism is not the answer” Saturday, drawing a sustained barrage of boos—not just from those who embraced the label, but from those who resented it. The following day, Maryland Rep. John Delany dismissed Medicare-for-All as “not good policy,” and faced heckles and jeers.

The San Francisco confab was the state Dems’ first get-together since last year’s blowout election returned the party to its national majority in the House and devastated the ranks of elected Republicans in California. The delegates left no doubt that as they prepare for the 2020 election against President Donald Trump, they are in no mood for compromise or equivocation.

At least not when it comes to ideas that energize them.

But state party conventions—dominated in decibels by faithful partisans and zealous activists—often offer an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror reflection of what the party’s voters statewide actually think. And even the delegates can be more temperate than the room might suggest.

In one of the few choices that the 3,200-plus delegates actually made, a majority eschewed more progressive candidates and easily elected as the party’s next chairman Los Angeles labor leader Rusty Hicks. He’s a soft-spoken white guy from Los Angeles who represented what many called the “safe choice.”

Still, they gave an effusive reception to speakers who jettisoned safe choices. Here was Warren: “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘Settle down, back up … wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes,'” she said. “Here’s the thing—when a candidate tells you all the things that aren’t possible … they are telling you they will not fight for you, and I am here to fight.”

Few of the presidential candidates addressed California issues specifically, in the way they become conversant about, say, ethanol in Iowa. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s made climate policy a thrust of his campaign, talked about visiting the wildfire devastation in the California community of Paradise, and some candidates called for greater regulation of tech firms. But their speeches mostly sidestepped California-specific concerns and aimed wide in appealing to what Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee called the “most progressive and the most democratic and the wokest Democrats in the country.”

“This is obviously a group of activists, and there are obviously some candidates who appeal more to the activists,” Dave Min told CALmatters at a meeting of the Chicano and Latino Caucus. He lost a bid for Congress in 2018 to Rep. Katie Porter, who was backed by Sen. Warren and supported Medicare-for-All. Now he’s seeking a state senate seat.

As if to illustrate his point, minutes later, Sanders—who has done more than virtually any other politician to turn support for universal Medicare into a litmus test for progressive Democratic candidates—entered the room and was nearly trampled by selfie-seeking delegates.

Next, Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who nearly beat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, entered the room, unleashing fresh pandemonium. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a relative moderate, was treated to a much more restrained, if polite, reception.

That courtesy was not extended to Hickenlooper.

“If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he told the convened Democrats. He was booed for roughly 30 seconds by delegates who either objected to his characterization of single-payer healthcare as “socialism,” or, in fact, believe socialism is the answer.

Regardless, the scene was unadulterated Fox News fodder.

The next day, Delaney, of Maryland, took the same approach. On the heels of Sanders’ raucously well-received speech, Delaney told the audience that universal access to Medicare “is actually not good policy.” The audience disagreed, vocally and persistently. Even New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got in the act, tweeting that Delaney should just “sashay away.”

If this is the first time you’ve heard of Delaney or Hickenlooper, that may have been the point. Hickenlooper later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was not seeking the crowd’s vitriol. But the fact that his campaign blasted out a press release the day of the event with the title, “Hickenlooper to California Dems: “Socialism Is Not the Answer” suggested he might have been aiming his appeal far outside Moscone Center. The following day, his campaign issued a press release citing coverage from The Washington Post and exulting: “Hickenlooper lost the room but gained a national audience.”

Besides, the Democratic Party has a history of candidates strategically saying something sure to elicit boos from a leftist crowd in order to establish their independent cred with moderates: Consider President Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah speech, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s defense of capital punishment at her state’s convention—which her campaign gleefully turned into a TV commercial.

For Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama administration and who has struggled to gain much popular support, the interpretation was clear.

“You heard the reaction,” he said, when asked by a reporter whether Democrats can compete without supporting a single-payer health-care policy. “Probably not in this state. Who knows?”

Joe Biden might disagree. The former vice president supports a policy that would allow those under the qualifying age to purchase a Medicare policy, which constitutes a moderate position among the current Democratic candidates. But at least for now, he leads in the polls—even among California Democrats.

The Biden campaign explained the candidate’s conspicuous absence at the San Francisco convention as an unavoidable scheduling conflict, though attendees of the 2018 Democratic convention may recall the chilly reception that Sen. Feinstein, another moderate, received.

The Democrats in attendance largely shrugged off Biden’s decision not to show up. Alex Gallardo-Rooker, who has served at the party’s chair since the resignation of Eric Baumann earlier this year, said that Biden was “being pulled all over the place.” Gov. Newsom also gave the former vice president a pass: “It’s a big country.” When asked about it, Sen. Kamala Harris literally shrugged—and said nothing.

The one exception was Sanders, who, during his speech in the convention hall on Sunday morning, referred to “presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to be in this room.” The crowd happily booed.

Sanders was cheered as he argued that there is no “middle ground” on climate change, making a not-so-subtle dig at Biden who used the term to describe his environmental policy plan.

But to some, both supporters and detractors, the party’s choice of Hicks for chair represented its own kind of middle ground. Kimberly Ellis, Hicks’ strongest opponent who narrowly lost the race for party chair in 2017, had argued that the party needs to take a more assertive role in political messaging and agenda setting.

But with 57 percent of the vote, Hicks’ victory was decisive, and the party avoided an oft-predicted runoff election. Ellis got 36 percent.

For close observers of California politics, this might feel like deja vu. Earlier this year, the California Republican Party held its own election for chair in which Jessica Patterson, the pick of most of the party establishment, beat out an ideological upstart, Travis Allen.

At a Friday evening forum hosted by the Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, candidates for chair were asked, rapid-fire, about single-payer health insurance, a statewide ban on fracking, the Green New Deal and a moratorium on new charter schools. All six candidates were unanimous in their support.

Where disagreement arose, it was less about policy and more about the role of the party itself—whether the priority should be on building up the party as a political institution or promoting the most progressive agenda.

Asked whether the party should abandon the practice of automatically endorsing incumbent Democratic lawmakers or substantially reduce the power of elected office holders within the party, Hicks was the only candidate to say no.

Karen Araujo, a delegate from Salinas who supported Ellis, called Hicks “a safe choice.” Still, she added, “It was a clear decision. I’ll honor that and I’ll work hard for my party.”

Said Josh Newman, a former Orange County state senator who was recalled and is running for his old seat again: “It’s good to have a decisive moment where we decide, ‘OK, fair election, fair result; now let’s work on the next thing. And the next thing has to be 2020.”

Elizabeth Castillo contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics