After decades of taking a backseat in presidential politics, California is finally occupying the pivotal role it’s long envisioned for itself.
The state’s Super Tuesday primary could decide the Democratic nominee. And this weekend, California becomes the center of the political universe as the biggest gathering of presidential hopefuls to date crashes the nation’s largest state party gathering.
With nearly 500 Democratic delegates at stake in the March 3 primary — the highest number of any state — the California Democratic Party’s mega-convention is important enough to pull more than half of the 23-candidate field out of the early presidential states and into Moscone Convention Center for three days of events.
The prospective rewards are tantalizingly rich: there are 8.6 million Democratic voters in the state, and the convention is expected to draw a crowd of at least 5,000 activist delegates and guests, in addition to at least 300 national media starting Friday.
Yet the convention is not without its risks — candidates will have to tread carefully in their attempts to woo the convention’s uber-activists, who are widely viewed as tacking far to the left of most Democrats in California, and across the nation.
“The delegates that make up the California Democratic Party are the foot soldiers, and the heart of activism — but they are not a microcosm of Democrats” in California or the nation, says David Jacobson, a Democratic strategist. And within the “beautiful tapestry’’ of Democratic diversity, he says, there’s “a battle within the ultimate insider activist universe.’’
California’s activist Democrats are famous for raucous convention floor demonstrations; they’ve shouted down former Gov. Jerry Brown on fracking, booed Senator Dianne Feinstein for her stance on capital punishment, and given centrist Democratic presidential candidates like John Kerry and Joe Lieberman the thumbs down for backing the war in Iraq.
Already, there are suggestions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a hero to many in the party, may be challenged on the floor by high-profile party progressives over her position on impeachment. Extra security has been called to staff a Saturday morning meeting of the California Democratic Women’s Caucus, where Bernie Sanders supporters have reportedly planned demonstrations of their own as Pelosi is expected to speak.
California-based billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer — whose NeedtoImpeach.com organization has amassed 8 million signatures in support of impeachment — said he will not hold back when he addresses the delegates on Saturday, the same day as Pelosi.
As California Democrats assess potential presidential candidates, “whether we choose to impeach the President is a very real question,’’ Steyer says. “I don’t think we should trim our sails to please Donald John Trump…I don’t think we should be waiting for approval from [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy. Forget it.’’
Steyer says the convention will be an opportunity to show the nation that “California has a functioning democracy. California is about a straightforward, progressive agenda where we get things done.”
Yet the weekend events may be dominated by coverage of one presidential candidate, California Senator Kamala Harris, who gets the plum opening time slot at addressing the convention’s general session on Saturday morning — and whose reception as the state’s favorite daughter will be closely monitored.
On Wednesday, her campaign released endorsements of 33 members of the state Assembly, including Speaker Anthony Rendon — and many of those backers, more than half of the state’s legislative body, will be in the convention hall. On Friday, Harris released even more names, including former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, who unsuccessfully challenged Feinstein in 2018.
“She’s looking forward to being home,’’ says Harris senior advisor Debbie Mesloh, who says Harris enjoys “a history with the delegates, and with the convention” that has delivered her wildly enthusiastic receptions in the past, and overwhelming endorsements in her most recent Senate race.
Harris, who served two terms as state attorney general, will use her time to “be reminding people of what she can do’’ in the White House — from defending LGBTQ rights and health care to using prosecutorial skills to root out corruption, she said.
Harris’ presidential rivals aren’t ceding the state to her. Thirteen other Democratic contenders will deliver speeches and compete for the attention of convention delegates, among them Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Eric Swalwell of California, as well as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all have speaking slots as well.
One notable absence is former Vice President Joe Biden, who is keeping his distance from the events. The party’s frontrunner has announced he is instead hitting the Ohio Human Rights Campaign dinner — apparently unconcerned that some state headlines may accuse him of blowing off California.
“He’s leading in the polls, he’s well known in California. He’s been on the statewide ballot twice with Barack Obama — you can’t really have a better position,’’ says Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski. “It’s not really going to hurt him, not being part of this cattle call.”
Biden insiders say he may have wanted to avoid a noisy chorus of boos from progressive activists — and the potentially divisive politics that may erupt during the California Democrats’ convention. That includes an election to determine the next state party chair — a contest that pits Sanders backer Kimberly Ellis against centrist labor leader Rusty Hicks and party Vice Chair Daraka Larimore Hall — which could expose some bitter political Democratic fault lines, even as it determines who will lead the party’s message and money in the crucial cycle ahead.
Already, there are signs that tension between progressives and more centrist forces in the party could turn into national headlines.
A coalition of powerhouse California construction labor unions plan a loud Saturday protest to underscore their growing opposition to the Green New Deal — which has been passionately embraced by progressives but which labor believes will cost tens of thousands of California workers’ jobs.
“The California Building Trades and their hardworking friends are coming to the convention under the banner of #bluecollarrevolution to remind attendees who built this party,’’ says Erin Lehane, a spokeswoman for the union which represents more than 400,000 state workers.
Tim Miller, a former advisor for GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, said the divides underscore that California Democrats should tread lightly this weekend, and avoid pushing their presidential candidates too far out of the mainstream — a lesson some Republicans have learned the hard way in the past.
“The Democrats are risking making the same mistake that Ted Cruz made in 2016 — thinking that the entire party base wants their candidates to have the most extreme positions on every issue,’’ he said. “That’s hurting them in the primaries and maybe why Biden is doing so well. And it will hurt them in the general when they are making statements that give fodder to the Republicans.”
If the weekend events get too fiery, “Donald Trump will come out the winner,’’ predicted one major Democratic strategist who has represented national candidates, and declined to speak on record.
The strategist said the California convention’s far-left leanings will almost certainly deliver additional Twitter material to a president who has repeatedly targeted the state and its governor, Gavin Newsom, for criticism — and is already attempting to label Democrats as crazed “socialists,” open border backers and abortion advocates more consumed with investigations than delivering jobs or legislative action.
Kapolczynski insists that the sheer numbers — and donor money — represented in California make the state convention a must-visit for most.
“Republicans love to campaign against California — and they have for decades. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are a major source of contributions to Democratic candidates, a major source of volunteers for candidates, and an important place to get your message out nationally,’’ she says.
It may be an especially important venue for candidates who are struggling in the polls, affording them the big media moment supplied by California’s high-profile stage to get some traction, Kapolczynski said.
That’s a lesson learned from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who in the 2008 presidential race used the California Democratic convention to deliver a speech that catapulted him into the headlines — and into the hearts of progressives — by defining himself as a representative of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”
Jacobson says that the end game in California will be the March primary — and this weekend provides the first stepping stone to that key date.
“California is a juggernaut when it comes to delegates…and no candidate should take for granted the most dynamic, diverse, most populous and most delegate-rich state in the union,’’ he says. “Period. I don’t care who you are.”