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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

The resignation of California Democratic Party chairman Eric Bauman comes at a particularly emotional moment in California politics—on the heels of historic wins for Democrats and after a year of bipartisan reckoning over the apparent culture of sexual bullying within the political class.

Bauman became the latest casualty of the #MeToo movement when he resigned last week, hours after Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom called on him to step down over allegations he harassed staff members and party activists with numerous lewd comments and incidents of inappropriate physical contact. Bauman said he has a drinking problem and would seek treatment.

“I have made the realization that in order for those to whom I may have caused pain and who need to heal, for my own health, and in the best interest of the party that I love and to which I have dedicated myself for more than 25 years, it is in everyone’s best interest for me to resign my position as chair of the California Democratic Party,” Bauman said.

The fact that Bauman’s alleged behavior persisted even as the public gaze focused so heavily in the last year on rooting out sexual harassment may be a testament to the counterproductive role alcohol too often plays in Capitol culture. Or it may point to the declining significance of political parties—how important can a party leader be, after all, if he can decree “zero tolerance,” as Bauman did, for sexual harassment, and then openly proceed to harass his staff?

But most of all, Bauman’s resignation is a sign that the #MeToo story is far from over.

“There are a lot of untold stories, and frankly, a lot of bad actors who haven’t been held accountable yet,” said Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who helped coordinate a public letter that last year kicked off the anti-harassment movement in the state Capitol.

During the past year of tumult and introspection, three legislators resigned, facing harassment allegations, and several others were publicly reprimanded for behavior ranging from using vulgar language to giving unwanted “noogies.” On the same day Bauman resigned, the Assembly released records saying Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia violated sexual harassment policy by acting “overly familiar” with a staffer when, in a drunken state, she grabbed him at a legislative softball game. Throughout this year, the Legislature passed dozens of laws to combat harassment in workplaces statewide, and formed a special committee that crafted a plan to improve the culture inside the Capitol.

Bauman, who is gay, spoke out last year in favor of legislation to give Capitol staffers whistleblower protection if they report misconduct. The Democratic convention he organized in February included new precautions to keep participants safe, such as extra security and a hotline for reporting harassment and assault.

Now Bauman himself will be the focus of an inquiry by a new Commission of Inquiry and Recognition being formed by a Democratic party activist in Los Angeles who says he’s been a victim of Bauman’s inappropriate advances. The commission includes former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin.

“There is going to be a lot of focus on who enabled this. There are still people in party leadership who enabled this to persist as long as it has,” said Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats club. “They are part of the breakdown in governance in the party that contributed to the worsening and widening of the hurt (Bauman) has been allowed to inflict.”

Johnson said Bauman doesn’t deserve credit for California Democrats’ electoral victories this month—which included flipping seven seats in the House, capturing every statewide office and gaining supermajorities (and then some) in both chambers of the Legislature.

Political scientists and campaign strategists agreed that party leadership seemed to be only one factor among many in the blue wave this election. Democrats, they noted, also were buoyed by Californians’ deep dislike of Republican President Donald Trump, as well as a strong push from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and numerous labor and activist groups that raised huge sums of money and organized campaign volunteers.

“The state party did not have a major role in what happened in regards to Congress,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired political science professor at the University of Southern California.

“What the state party is, by and large, is a way for donors to launder money,” she said, because the law limits how much they can give to individual candidates—but not how much they can give to the state party.

The party hired an employment lawyer to investigate the accusations against Bauman. That process will continue despite his resignation, said acting Chair Alexandra Gallardo Rooker. An executive summary of the findings will be made public.  

Rooker will continue to serve as the party chair until delegates elect a new leader, likely at their convention in May. What’s not clear, however, is how many more political figures will fall before the #MeToo story is over in California.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

As California’s Democrats wrapped up their party’s annual convention Sunday, they left San Diego as they arrived: a party still fraying at the seams after the 2016 election, held together by one strong bond—a unifying dislike of President Donald Trump.

Split between their traditional moderate-to-liberal faction and lefter-leaning progressives, the delegates refused to endorse in key races and snubbed a few of their own incumbents, notably longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Their emotional differences over hot issues such as single-payer health care and rent control were on display. Yet through it all, dissing Trump was a reliable applause line.

“Let us find what unites us at this convention,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who’s been discussed as a Democratic presidential prospect, on the opening evening. “Republicans and Internet trolls and Vladimir Putin (are) laughing every time we’re fighting with each other and not fighting against the Republicans.”

Billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer used his keynote speech as an opportunity to reinforce his public campaign calling for impeachment. “Does anyone in this room believe that Donald Trump is fit to be president of the United States?” If anyone in the convention hall thought so, it was impossible to hear them over the jeering.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles got some of the biggest cheers of the weekend by building on that theme. Her speech questioned the president’s loyalty and mental health, finishing with a rousing chant of “Impeach 45!”

For a party still smarting from a vicious 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—one that had escalated into a contentious party leadership battle last year—it’s nice to find something that everyone can agree on.

“Obviously we have a variety of different views. That’s what parties are about,” said state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento. “We have differences about how we look at things, but we’ve got to protect our country.”

Still, those differences could be important come June. In a number of toss-up congressional races, a surplus of left-of-center candidates threaten to split the primary vote, allowing two Republicans to progress to the November ballot. Shutting Democrats out of contention in those races could jeopardize party plans to re-take control of the U.S. House.

Though the party had hoped to winnow some of the field this weekend by making endorsements in some of those seats, in the races to replace Southern California GOP Reps. Steve Knight, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, there was no such luck. Under party bylaws, the delegates were too divided to make an official choice.

Failing at those official channels, party Chair Eric Bauman resorted to old-fashioned guilt from the convention hall stage on Sunday in an attempt to thin the herd.

“We have an overpopulation problem,” he said. And then to some of those surplus candidates: “Isn’t there some other way to express your public service? … The voters in those districts want to elect a Democrat, (and) they’re tired of the right-wing hateful agenda of Donald Trump.”

Indeed, both party organizers and aspiring Democrats candidates aim to bring national news scandals to the local level.

“In 2016, Russians and Republicans were very good at sewing discord within our party, so I think we learned a lesson from that election,” said Andrew Janz, who is running to replace GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in his San Joaquin Valley district.

The lesson: Stick together, and focus on the common political enemy.

Outside the room where Janz’s endorsement by the party was to be voted on, one delegate, social activist Emily Cameron, complained about the candidate’s single-minded focus on his opponent. “If you look at his Twitter, it’s like every tweet is about Devin Nunes,” she said, arguing that the candidate should focus more on the economic interests of the Central Valley and less on the Russia investigation and the ties between Nunes and Trump. “It’s not what people care about!”

But evidently, enough delegates did: Janz won the endorsement.

In a state where only a quarter of adults approve of the president’s job performance, emphasizing Trump above all else isn’t a bad strategy. Katharine Marrs, the party’s state field director for 2018, said opposition to Trump has been a “gateway” cause for bringing political neophytes into the world of left-of-center party politics.

“Sometimes we ask people what their top issue is at the door, and instead of giving us healthcare or the economy, sometimes their top issue is Trump,” she said. But can party unity built around opposition to a single candidate last past a single election?

“What we’ve seen is that it’s sustainable for now,” said Marrs. Finding areas of common agreement is a “slower process.”

And for now, the party base appears to be tacking left.

When the nearly 3,000 delegates voted to endorse the statewide races, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom won the top vote share in the gubernatorial contest. Together with the former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin, both of whom support a state-funded single-payer health-insurance program, the progressive bloc captured 59 percent of the delegate vote.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is skeptical of the state’s ability to implement or fund a single-payer system, and who has taken positions opposed by many organized labor groups, came in at 9 percent. That followed a tough weekend for the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was repeatedly heckled by party activists.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Senate leader Kevin de León received a majority of delegate votes over Feinstein, whom many delegates considered too hawkish on foreign policy, and too dovish on President Trump.

The fact that de León didn’t clear the 60 percent threshold means that the party didn’t officially offer an endorsement—but the body as a whole clearly had a preference. Between de León and progressive dark-horse candidate Pat Harris, just more than 59 percent of the delegates cast their votes to the left.

“Resistance doesn’t just mean saying no. You have to move on a parallel track with a positive proactive agenda,” said de León, suggesting progressive policies like a higher minimum wage and stronger environmental protections were needed. But he also warned against trying to “cajole” or “negotiate” with President Trump, whom he compared to the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog—a malevolent force unable to control its own destructive impulses.

Rather than write him off, last year Feinstein expressed hope that Trump could learn to become “a good president,” to the chagrin of many on the California left. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, she has voted in line with the president’s preferred legislation 28 percent of the time, placing her roughly in the middle of all Democratic and independent senators. California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who also spoke at the convention and has been mentioned as a presidential contender, voted with the president just 15 percent of the time.

De León was careful to specify that he was not comparing his opponent in the Senate race to a frog. But he did say that his unrelenting opposition to the administration made for a meaningful difference between the two of them.

President Trump “holds the most powerful position in the world, and therefore, he’s in a position to go out of his way to hurt California,” he said. “So why not be proactive, be preemptive, and position yourself—as opposed to be reactive? Because the onslaught is going to happen.”

In the end, of course, delegates to the convention may or may not accurately represent all Democratic voters statewide—not to mention independents inclined to vote Democratic. Feinstein knows that well, having been booed at her own party’s convention for declaring her support of the death penalty when she was running for governor in 1990. All the while, her campaign was gleefully filming the moment—turning it into a campaign ad to underscore her independence.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics