Back in 2016, columnist Frank Bruni released the controversially famous “14 Young Democrats to Watch” as a response to social criticism that the Democratic Party had a lack of ‘youthful energy’ to sustain their platform.
I remember reading this list at the time and cringing immediately not only at the selection (or lack thereof) he had put out, but also at the steep lack of California progressives on the list. And my perceptions have largely been confirmed since then.
Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Patrick Murphy, and Joe Kennedy III have all had their old House seats filled and are no longer active in electoral politics. Mike Johnston was passed over for the Senate in Colorado in 2020 and has since retired. Andrew Gillum, just last month, received 21 federal indictments on corruption charges.
And for the one Californian on that list, Eric Garcetti? Leaving office as a historically unpopular Mayor of Los Angeles and marred by a recent sexual harassment scandal surrounding his top advisor, he recently made headlines for his parents hiring lobbyists to throw him a lifeline in Washington - which experts in public relations recognize is unprecedented.
The list goes on, but the principle remains the same. The DNC has a lack of viable candidates on the national front, and the generation Bruni’s predictions surrounded have been most disaffected.
Gone are the days of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and even Bernie Sanders; rather, we seem to be on a crash course towards an unending perpetuity of Michael Dukakis-esque geriatrics. And the proof is in the pudding. One could hardly argue that President Joe Biden, who has maintained that he’ll remain the Democratic standard-bearer next cycle, is an inspiring figure amidst his record unpopularity.
But begging the broader question, and looking towards Biden’s succession, it doesn’t seem that Democrats have any alternative plans lined up beyond an already-sinking 2024 ticket.
There’s a lesson to be learned here for Californians like myself, given our stronghold state has the largest population of registered Democrats in the country. Irrespective of the good-faith mandate that a progressive polity hands the party, feeding the political machine up in Sacramento without any checkback has stifled the fostering of electoral talent.
The natural progression of national-level politicians has almost always begun at the state level, with a young up-and-comer climbing the ranks to prominence and airtime. But the California Democratic Party’s bureaucratic refusal to engage promising newcomers in favor of milquetoast stabilizers has disaffected this process.
And there’s a massive amount of hyperbolic discounting that occurs as a byproduct. Because while there might be a delta of corporate donations attached with keeping rank-and-file Democrats in office in the short term, there’s a crowd-out of necessary talent in the long term.
Take, for example, the party’s endorsement of incumbent Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara over challenger Assemblymember Marc Levine. Lara, whose first term was described as an “ethical disaster” by the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times given his currying of corporate favors, is now institutionally protected on the down-ballot for yet another term while they ditch a promising talent in Levine.
Or, take the party’s repeated endorsement of incumbent Congressman Jimmy Gomez over attorney David Kim. Gomez, who has taken north of $800,000 from PACs, is a surprisingly vulnerable incumbent in a district that skews over 35% Democratic. In 2020, Kim, who refuses money from corporate donors, came within six percentage points of Gomez with less than a fifth of the funds. Yet again in 2022, the party has protected the uninspiring incumbent over a younger, high-potential challenger.
Perhaps most extreme is the party’s 26th year endorsing Congressman Brad Sherman, most recently over grassroots activist Shervin Aazami. Sherman, a kingpin of the Congressional gerontocracy, has been in office since 1997 with no intention of stepping down or moving upwards. On the contrary, Aazami is an exciting 30-year-old organizer who shows unusual restraint and political maturity; but you can guess who the party chose to protect.
The active choice to refuse all these up-and-coming figures an opportunity at prominence not only disturbs legislative function, but it impedes the ability of California to nurture much-needed Democratic talent.
Ultimately, it may be idealistic to expect a party still beholden to corporations and the duopoly of power to forego networks of cash in favor of politicians that might raise good hell. But it doesn’t mean that this reticence towards disruption isn’t harmful towards competitive elections and a stronger liberal movement.
Only then might we see some love for California on Frank Bruni’s list.