If its planners are right, this weekend’s California Democratic Council convention in Fresno will put that venerable progressive organization back on the map as a major player in California Democratic Party activities.
Founded in 1952 to develop a network of Democratic clubs and win back political control of the state for Democrats, the CDC was once a driving force behind California’s development as a Democratic stronghold from the 1950s through the 1970s. At its height, the CDC coordinated hundreds of Democratic clubs in every corner of the state, with more than 70,000 members.
In fact, for many years, some felt the CDC played a greater role in the success of the Democratic Party in California than the party itself. Key to the CDC’s success was its role as the Party’s endorsing arm, as the California Democratic Party’s rules prevented it from backing individual Democrats in primary races.
“But then in 1989, I believe, the Party took over the endorsement process,” says CDC President Henry Vandermeir, a courseware developer with his wife Lori in Ladera Ranch. Interest in the CDC gradually declined, with its convention attendance falling from a high of 1,800 in the 1970s to a few hundred in recent years. “The CDC has been trying to find its niche ever since,” according to Vandermeir.
Three Steps to Relevance
To bring the CDC back to relevance in Party circles, Henry and his fellow officers have launched a three-step process in the eight months since they took office.
“The first phase is to get our products and services – our organizing tools – back on track,” he says. Thanks to these initial efforts, many Democratic clubs throughout the state now make use of the CDC’s training manual and free websites. Many dozens of activists have also attended CDC workshops – so far held in Anaheim, Ventura, and Covina – with such speakers as the CDP’s Garry Shay, LA County Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman, and Progressive Democrats of America state chair Dr. Bill Honigman.
“The next phase is to put meat on the bones by getting more activists onboard and filling all the open positions,” Henry continues. “Power is in the numbers. The more clubs we have affiliated with the CDC, the more members we have, the more influence the CDC will have.”
A key to that has been to recruit other like-minded individuals and organizations to join forces with the CDC.
“There are a number of progressive organizations in California, all functioning separately – PDA, Take Back Red California, the CDC, to some extent the CDP,” says CDC Secretary Heather Lacayo, a video producer and champion skater. “But no one organization has enough resources or influence to succeed the way we want the Democratic Party to succeed.”
“As a unit, we can succeed,” agrees Henry. “We are trying to make the CDC that middleman or go-between to pull all these organizations together.”
The final phase is to start focusing on progressive issues and for that Henry recruited Honigman, an emergency room physician from Orange County who is affectionately known in progressive circles as “Dr. Bill.”
Dr. Bill has come onboard specifically to refocus the CDC’s mission on progressive political causes. Vandermeir asked him to get involved both because he’s such a strong, capable activist but also because he’s the statewide chair for the PDA. “The principles the PDA supports – ending the war, healthcare for all, economic justice, clean elections, environmental reform – are exactly the issues the CDC wants to support as well.”
Bringing It All Together
“The Convention is really an accumulation of the things I’ve been working on,” says Henry. “We’ll have Art Torres representing the State Party. We have the CDP’s Environmental Caucus putting on an environment workshop and Take Back Red California putting on another one. The PDA will lead a progressive action forum under Dr. Bill’s leadership. Vote Blue will be there, as will the Grassroots Champion Coalition.”
Notable on that convention list is Sen. Art Torres (Ret.), as the left-leaning CDC had developed a reputation in some quarters as being opposed to the more establishment-oriented CDP.
“When I took over as president, I knew we needed a working relationship with the Party,” say Vandermeir. “One of the first things I did was to talk to Art. I wanted him to understand that I saw the CDC as a tool to get Democrats elected and that we at the CDC would love to work more closely with the CDP.”
Torres indicated that that no CDC president had come to talk with him as the California party’s leader. As a result of Vandermeir’s overtures, Torres has come to several CDC events and will be a keynoter in Fresno. “When I asked him to speak, all he said was when and where,” says Vandermeir.
As with too many organizations, a remaining challenge is to increase diversity at the convention and in the CDC generally.
“When I went to my first CDC convention several years ago, I would be the only black woman in the room, if one other lady left for a moment,” says Sharon Kyle, the CDC’s communications co-director, a financial analyst from the Jet Propulsion Lab. “And I didn’t see very many Latino or Asian faces in the room either. That’s wrong anyplace, but really wrong in a progressive Democratic gathering in California. I’m working on addressing that issue and hope others will join me.”
“Having Henry at the helm has brought us new energy,” interjects Heather. “It was a shame to see the CDC decline over the years, to watch the numbers go down.”
Heather’s family has a long history of activism. “I was the kid coloring in the back of room while my mother and grandmother worked with their activist friends at early CDC meetings,” she says. “But now with the CDC becoming the intermediary between more establishment groups and the more avant-garde progressive factions, we’re starting to bring people together. The club and membership numbers have almost doubled in just eight months.”
At the convention, Frank Russo from the California Progress Report will moderate a Superdelegates session at Saturday evening’s dinner. “A number of superdelegates have been invited; seven have accepted and we expect others will follow suit,” Henry reports. “The Superdelegates will introduce themselves, explain their positions and how they intend to decide, and then we’ll have the audience ask questions.”
Heather, Henry, and Sharon don’t expect to get much sleep this week as they pull all the convention details together.
“I expect to see great information, great interaction,” says Heather. “We’ll be getting something done while we’re having a good time. We encourage activists to join us.”
Photo shows Oakland Representative Barbara Lee talking with CDC convention goers at the 2006 Santa Clara convention.