The California Democratic Party convention hosted 14 presidential candidates, providing a pre-debate glimpse of the evolving nomination battle.
If there were such a thing as a candy shop for Democratic activists, it would look a lot like the California Democratic Party state convention, where 14 of the party’s 23 declared presidential candidates arrived to peddle their political sweet talk.
Even in a crowd of some 5,000 Democratic delegates, party officials, officeholders, issue leaders and political consultants, it was hard not to run into one of the candidates during the three-day session held at San Francisco’s massive Moscone Convention Center. The 14 came early, stayed late, took selfies, shook hands and spoke at caucus meetings, general sessions, offsite panels, and late-night parties held in restaurants and bars around town.
And, from the reaction of Democrats in the house, there was plenty to savor.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren garnered the “heartiest welcome” award when she took the stage for her general session address – a greeting that was followed by sustained applause and several standing O’s during her remarks.
Oakland native and California Sen. Kamala Harris inspired the “biggest visibility demonstration” as delegates headed into the general session where she spoke.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg earned the “best applause line” when he noted during his remarks that “this morning, I woke up next to my husband, by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar got “loudest laugh” honors when she told delegates that, as a political candidate, she has “raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. As my husband has pointed out, it is not an expanding base.”
And New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker earned the “most impassioned” award for his inspiring and emotionally charged remarks focusing on gun violence and the need for Democrats to wrest control of both the Senate and the White House from the GOP.
While still a favorite among many of his 2016 supporters, who stuck around for the Sunday morning closing session where he spoke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seemed almost an afterthought by the time he took the stage. Warren’s more specific policy proposals and her call for corporate accountability rather than democratic socialism appear to be pulling voters from his ranks, and the sheer number of contenders is diminishing his ability to hold the limelight.
Among the nine no-shows, Democratic front-runner Vice President Joe Biden was the target of criticism from many delegates, who didn’t buy his explanation that attendance at a Saturday Human Rights Campaign dinner in Ohio kept him from the three-day California event. “He shouldn’t be taking us for granted,” remarked one delegate who is considering a vote for Biden.
Those attending, in alphabetical order, were Booker, Buttigieg, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Harris, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Sanders, Eric Swalwell and Warren.
The no-shows were Michael Bennet, Biden, Steve Bullock, Bill DeBlasio, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang.
Agreement on core issues
Among the 14 in attendance, it was hard to find daylight among their policy stances. Almost everyone declared her or himself in favor of the key Democratic issues: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, gun safety legislation, equal pay for women, equality for LGBTQIA Americans, reproductive rights for women, comprehensive immigration reform, and the like.
Two notable exceptions: former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former U.S. House Representative John Delaney of Maryland.
Hickenlooper aroused the ire of Sanders supporters Saturday afternoon, when he declared, “socialism is not the answer.” The chorus of boos grew far louder when he critiqued much more widely accepted Democratic policy positions: “we shouldn’t try to achieve universal coverage by removing private insurance from over 150 million Americans…we should not try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a government job.”
Delaney, the last candidate to speak Sunday morning, should have taken the hint. The final minute of his convention address was drowned out by boos, after he asserted that “Medicare for All may sound good but it’s actually not good policy nor is it good politics.”
The message from delegates was clear: Democratic voters want to know how our next president will implement a universal health care solution and how she or he will combat the climate crisis. They do not want to hear that it can’t – or shouldn’t – be done.
For the most part, the remaining 12 candidates delivered, while trying to distinguish themselves from the pack.
Harris attacked Trump for “distracting…talking about a wall that’s never gonna get built while he’s busy deregulating and deconstructing our government and our democracy…” Her support of women’s rights and her call for impeachment proceedings received standing ovations.
O’Rourke focused on voting rights and immigrant rights, and promised that if he were elected, “We will never again put another child in another cage” when families cross the border seeking asylum.
Warren declared the business of the 2020 election “to defeat Donald Trump…and to win up and down the ticket.” Listing dozens of “big problems that call for big solutions…big structural change…I have a plan for that!”
For Gillibrand, the issue is bravery. “Donald Trump is tearing apart the moral fabric of our country. I’ve stood up to Donald Trump more than anyone else in the U.S. Senate.”
Gabbard said that military experience would inform her presidency. “I know the cost of war…we must end our involvement in regime-change wars…I will bring a soldier’s perspective to the White House.”
Buttigieg positioned himself as a change agent. “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’ We can only look forward. We need to transform our economy and our democracy into something newer and better.”
Swalwell identified his campaign with California, where people “make big ideas real…we change, we adapt, we evolve. Put a California Democrat in the White House, and you’ll have that spirit all across the country.”
Klobuchar explained that, “I don’t come from money, but I have grit,” before focusing on her regional appeal: “If you think we can’t win in the Midwest, I have four words for you: former Governor Scott Walker!’”
Inslee declared himself “the representative of the clean air, clean energy, clean water wing of our party…I am confident in…our ability to build a clean energy future.” Of Trump, he said, “Windmills don’t cause cancer. They cause jobs.”
Booker brought the crowd to its feet with his promise to “take the fight to the NRA. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired…this campaign is not about one person…it’s about who we are and who we must be to each other…beating Donald Trump is a floor, not a ceiling. I’m running not to beat Republicans, but to unite Americans.”
Sanders reprised his 2016 call for a political revolution, adding a new tagline by declaring that there is “no middle ground” on climate change, the oligarchy, corporations paying their fair share, health care, abortion rights, big pharma, gun violence, justice reform, racism, and a bloated military budget.
And Castro wowed the audience with his impassioned condemnation of a justice system that managed to apprehend mass murderer Dylan Root without incident, before reading the names of a number of minority victims of police shootings. “No matter who you are, you deserve equal treatment under the law.”
Progressive policies yes; revolution, not so much
If the reaction of California delegates – who skew somewhat more progressive than Democratic voters nationwide – didn’t make it clear, election of the state party’s new chair did: while most Democrats are looking for progress and progressive policy solutions, they’re not big on calls for political revolution.
Just as party outsider and self-described democratic socialist Sanders struggled to attract new backing at the convention, a progressive outsider vying to become state party chair failed in her second attempt to win the votes of a majority of state delegates.
Kimberly Ellis, a Northern California Democratic organizer who hasn’t held an elected position in the state party, lost to Rusty Hicks, president of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO and 12-year delegate to the Democratic State Central Committee. Hicks took 57 percent of the vote to Ellis’ 36 percent, with outgoing state party vice-chair Daraka Larimore-Hall winning 6 percent, and the rest going to one of the other four candidates in the race.
The result seemed to indicate that delegates preferred a candidate with knowledge of party operations over a novice party official to lead them out of the morass created by former chair Eric Bauman’s late 2018 resignation over accusations of sexual harassment. As vice-chair, Larimore-Hall had been named in one resulting lawsuit, which diminished his viability as a candidate.
But beyond that tenuous reading of political tea leaves, Democrats left San Francisco Sunday afternoon with no clear choice among the many presidential hopefuls – and expectations that upcoming presidential debates will help winnow the field.
The first of six 2019 Democratic debates (another six are set for 2020) will take place on June 26 and 27 in Miami, Fl., with half of the qualifying candidates appearing each evening. The second is slated for July 30 and 31 in Detroit, Mi. (Candidates qualify to participate based on fundraising results, the number of individual donors and the number of states in which those donors live.)
The most common refrain heard as delegates headed out the door? “I’m going to need three or four primary votes! We’ve got an embarrassment of riches this time around.”
Blogger Marcy Miroff Rothenberg writes most often on politics and women’s issues. Her new book – Ms. Nice Guy Lost – Here’s How Women Can Win– offers a comprehensive summary of the attacks waged on American women’s rights and opportunities by Trump and the GOP since 2016 – and a to-do list for fighting back. It’s available from store.bookbaby.com and at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and Goodreads.com.