This weekend, the largest Democratic Party organization in the country will be meeting for a convention in San Diego. Several thousand people representing every community in California will endorse officers who will lead the state Democratic team in the 2018 elections. National political prognosticators view California as a harbinger of a national trend that will set the stage for the 2020 presidential election.
Opinion polls show President Trump is widely unpopular statewide. A half-dozen California seats in the US House of Representatives could flip to the Democrats in the fall. Nationally, Democrats are salivating at the possibility of taking back the House.
Time to Unite
Two years ago, a surge of grassroots activism overwhelmed the California Assembly District Caucuses where one-third of the Democratic Convention delegates are elected. These new voices were inspired by the 2016 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. They represent a sharp contrast to Democrats of the past. However, two-thirds of the convention delegates are appointed — either by Democratic officeholders or by veterans of Democratic Party county committees. To be successful the Democrats have to unify this mix.
Generally, the new members of the party are sympathetic to modern ideas like:
- 1. Medicare for all.
- 2. Universal tuition-free higher education at public colleges.
- 3. Increasing the minimum wage to at least $15/hour relative to 2015.
- 4. Abolition of the death penalty.
The “old guard” resists these ideas.
The Democratic Party national platform, forged at the 2016 National Convention, reflected the modern sentiments—but the 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee did not. So, the old guard won the nomination but lost the election. This contradiction haunts Democrats like the proverbial crazy aunt living in the attic.
Years ago, legendary Democratic leader and former State Treasurer, Jesse ‘Big Daddy” Unruh stated the essence of the problem, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Wealthy Democrats, willing to serve large corporate interests, dominate the statewide scene. US Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a typical example. Her inherited personal wealth combined with financing by Northern California financial interests has dominated California politics for decades.
With Feinstein at the top of a statewide race, local Democratic candidates rely on her to bankroll local campaign offices which gather volunteers to turn out the Democratic vote. Many local elected officials will moderate a more progressive agenda in order to ease the burden of fundraising.
Feinstein’s approach was adopted at the national level by Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In exchange for Wall Street support, Clinton delivered the North American Free Trade Agreement. Cheap imported manufactured products flooded the shelves of local Walmart stores. NAFTA, like cheap dope, created a temporary high, but ultimately domestic job losses created the widespread anger that elected Donald Trump. Now Trump has screwed up, and the backlash against him threatens elected Republicans.
Many congressional seats that are thought to be safe Republican districts will be contested this fall. The Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party is prepared to throw big money into some of these races hoping that newly elected Democratic representatives will counter the overall progressive sentiments of California Democrats.
The Feinstein Dilemma
Feinstein’s dominance of state politics is facing the greatest challenge in her political history. Her strongest opposition comes from Senate Leader Kevin de Leon who has embraced the more modern progressive agenda. Other less powerful progressives are also challenging Feinstein for her Senate seat.
Under the old political rules, Feinstein could win easily, letting her challengers split the primary vote. Then, she could demand unity while she campaigned against a right-wing Republican in the fall. Today, her problem is California’s “jungle primary” where the top two vote getters in the primary appear on the fall ballot, regardless of party affiliation. It is possible for activists who are weary of Feinstein to vote for their favorite candidate in the primary and for de Leon to finish second. Activists could still oppose Feinstein by supporting de Leon in the fall general election. They will oppose Feinstein’s endorsement at the San Diego convention.
Democrats have been at this crossroads before. Do they know how to cross the street?
The author is a member of the California Democratic Party State Central Committee from the 41st Assembly District representing the Pasadena-Altadena area. He represented the Pasadena area at the Democratic National Conventions of 1988, 1992 and 2016.