The 150 Democratic Party activists who gathered for the 56th Annual California Democratic Council convention this past weekend in Fresno certainly had sky-high hopes about their party’s chances in the November elections—but they had their fingers crossed behind their backs, as well.
The woeful George W. Bush Administration—certainly the worst in living memory with its foolhardy and unjust Iraq War, its increasingly obvious willingness to bail out the rich at the expense of the working poor, its legacy of disdain for individual rights—had convention-goers salivating about the chance to advance a truly progressive agenda this fall. Talk in the convention’s workshops centered on how to capture parts of California and the nation—those infamous Red Counties and Red States—that haven’t landed in the Democratic column in decades, if ever.
At the same time, fear nipped at the corners of the gathering that Democrats are never so efficient as when they are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—especially during Saturday night’s “Superdelegate Forum,” which pitted the overwhelmingly Barack Obama-supporting audience against an eight-person panel of superdelegates who just as overwhelmingly endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Brave talk aside about how all good Democrats will unite behind whichever candidate emerges as the party’s nominee, it was clear to many that the prolonged and increasingly divisive primary battle has put in play an election that should have been the Democrats for the asking—even among such long-term and heavily involved activists as these who would drive into Fresno from all corners of the state for a gathering like this over a sultry Cinco de Mayo weekend.
Breakfast of Champions
The two-day event got off to a bang Saturday morning with an old-fashioned barnburner of a stump speech by Joel Murillo, Fresno County Democratic Party chair, who recalled that Fresno hosted the first CDC convention, back in 1956, which featured presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as its keynote speaker.
Surveying the mostly white-haired, mostly white crowd, Murillo pointed to an issue the CDC and other progressive organizations acknowledge they need to address.
“Latinos are becoming 40% of California’s population and soon 40% of its voters. I see very few Latinos in this room. It is very difficult for Latinos to be Republicans,” he said. “It is very easy for Latinos to be Democrats—but they have to feel welcomed. They have to know that their issues matter to the Democratic Party.”
“If they did feel welcomed,” Murillo concluded in introducing Los Angeles County Party chair Eric Bauman, “Latinos could be the swing vote for Democrats, here in California and in a number of other states.”
Bauman followed with another barnburner, exhorting the activists present to look beyond their own safely Democratic precincts.
“The nine Bay Area counties and Los Angeles County will win elections for Democrats, but you can’t build a movement without involving everyone,” he said, pointing out that Ventura County recently went “Blue” and San Diego and San Bernardino could follow. “And this is the year we could take control of the legislature if all the cards line up. Not saying it will happen, but it could.”
Following Murillo’s lead, Bauman encouraged the audience members to widen the scope of their activities, bringing in more young voters and more minority voters, stressing one-on-one interaction. “No amount of TV, no amount of mail can make up for my eyes looking into your eyes,” he said.
Democrats need to take a new tack in their campaigning, Bauman concluded. “The other side has perfected the politics of subtraction and division,” he said. “But if we use the politics of addition and multiplication, we won’t just have a “Blue” White House; we’ll have a “Blue” America.”
Lunch and Learn
After a set of organization-building workshops, lunch featured appearances by Fresno’s State Senator Dean Florez and California Democratic Party Chair Art Torres (pictured with CDC Secretary Heather Lacayo).
Florez, who like LA’s State Senator Gil Cedillo and Congressman Xavier Becerra served on Torres’ state legislative staff, praised his former boss for his ability to “tell it like it is” and reminded the audience that the San Joaquin Valley surrounding Fresno needs the kind of environmental and healthcare reforms Democrats support: “Three of five kids in my district carry inhalers in their backpacks going to school,” he said.
The appearance by CDP Chair Torres was significant beyond his ability to deliver a rousing speech. Led by CDC President Henry Vandermeir, the CDC’s threefold revitalization plan—provide organization-building tools to help Democratic Clubs, unite with other progressive groups, advance a progressive agenda—hinges on improving relations within the California Democratic Party.
During his own lunchtime presentation, Vandermeir outlined the CDC’s tools—leadership workshops, training manuals, free websites for affiliated Dem Clubs—which seem to be met with favor. The involvement of such organizations such as the Progressive Democrats of America, Take Back Red California, CDP Rural Caucus, BE for Change, and Vote Blue indicated at least initial success with the outreach effort.
Not all was sweetness and light with these revitalization plans, however, as fractious bylaws sessions involving structural changes to the CDC’s operations led to several resignations, hurt feelings, and, well, Democrats being Democrats.
At lunch, Torres reminded the convention of what’s at stake.
“John McCain voted with George Bush’s Administration 87% of the time in 2007,” Torres said. “He wants to overturn Rowe v. Wade. He does not want to ban armor-piercing bullets. He voted against vaccines for children.”
Torres charged that the Republican presidential nominee is not the straight-talking, “friend of the little guy” maverick many think him to be. Instead, McCain has lived for many years in the luxury his vastly wealthy wife provides, has a staff mostly populated with old-hand lobbyists, and desperately wants to continue and expand upon the war the Bush Administration so unwisely began.
“George Bush has done so much damage to the country in eight years that it will take us 10 years to undo it,” Torres said. “We’ve spent $3 trillion dollars on the Iraq war already and will need another $509 billion dollars to rehabilitate Iraq War veterans. And already the average family pays $16,500 every year to support the war.”
Several convention workshops addressed ways to capitalize on the woeful failures of the conservative Republican agenda, including ones titled “Grassroots Organizing in Conservative Areas,” organized by Take Back Red California and the CDP Rural Caucus; “Voter Registration Strategies,” organized by Sue Broidy and Helen Conly of Vote Blue (pictured here); and “The Progressive Challenge,” organized by the PDA’s Dr. Bill Honigman and David Sonneborn (pictured here), and Ahjamu Makalani of the CDP Progressive Caucus.
(Click here for the video created by Edwin Ratsch of ProgressiveSpirit.com:)
Dining on Superdelegates
Moderated by Frank Russo of the California Progress Report, the Superdelegates Panel Saturday night was the convention’s highlight, filling every seat in the room and attracting coverage from three local television stations, The Fresno Bee, and The Los Angeles Times.As Denny Boyles reported in The Fresno Bee, part of the reason for having the panel was to show who superdelegates are: “‘People look at the superdelegates like they are one size fits all,’ Russo said. ‘But what’s lost is that they are just regular people who’ve chosen to take this responsibility. I hope, tonight, people gained some understanding of their role and their decision-making process.’”Six of the eight superdelegates had already thrown their support behind Hillary Clinton: Alice Huffman, a long-time Democratic National Committee member from Sacramento; Chris Stampolis, former CDC president and current Santa Clara-area college trustee; Garry Shay, CDP Rules Committee Chair; Rachel Binah, long-time DNC member from Northern California; and Alicia Wang, candidate for the newly created San Francisco county supervisors board.The lone Obama supporter was Mary Ellen Early from Sherman Oaks. The two undeclared delegates (pictured at top) were Robert “Big Red” Rankin, a retired Carson steelworker, and Steve Ybarra, a Sacramento lawyer and campaign manager.
As Scott Martelle reported in the Los Angeles Times, “Two of the six superdelegates”—Stampolis and Shay—“aligned with Clinton…said they would reconsider their support if rival Barack Obama maintained his lead in elected delegates and the popular vote after the last contests on June 3.”
Huffman indicated that she was more firmly in the Clinton camp, advocating one point that Florida and Michigan delegates be included in the count. “She’s just seasoned and ready. She’ll hit the ground running. She’s thoroughly vetted,” Huffman said. “I wouldn’t change my mind until Hillary changes her mind. When I get in with someone, I stay to the end.”
Stampolis said he was swayed by Clinton’s stance on grassroots organizations. “She and her staff were the only ones to appreciate the importance of clubs,” he said while expressing a moderate approach to the remaining primary race. “Both sides first have to do the right thing and second, when the candidate is finally chosen, supporters of the other candidate have to wholeheartedly support the nominee.”
Several other superdelegates echoed those sentiments, but it wasn’t clear that the audience was swayed. An informal straw poll taken during the convention gave Obama an 80-20% lead, with less than 10% saying they would support the opposing nominee—not good news for Democratic chances in the fall, but perhaps a passing expression of pique that the panel was so heavily loaded in one direction.
Wang had endorsed Clinton early on, in part to advance her feminist agenda and in part because Clinton won 75% of the Asian vote in California’s primary. Binah, originally a Bill Richardson supporter, was swayed by Clinton’s stance on environmental issues and by her campaign’s strong organization. Like all superdelegates, committed and not, Binah was peppered with calls from the candidates and their staffs. She found a charming call from Hillary Clinton herself that centered on environmental issues most persuasive.
Early, a member of the DNC since 1988, said she was persuaded to support Obama because she had never been so inspired by a candidate and because he considered no state too small to consider. “People are looking for someone who will inspire them,” she said. “Right-wing ideologues who would sit on their hands for John McCain will be inflamed into action if Clinton is our candidate.”
Rankin, who originally supported John Edwards because of his populist, pro-union message, remains undecided because he hasn’t yet heard enough from either remaining candidate about what they will do for working men and women. He also wants the primary process to play out to the end. “Eight states are left—millions of votes,” he said. “I really believe that their voices need to be heard.”
Ybarra, a self-described “Yellow Dog” Democrat and chair of the voting rights committee on the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus, leveraged his undeclared status to lobby for more support in reaching Hispanic voters, in California and across the country. “We shouldn’t set a goal of 60% Latino vote, because we need 75%,” he said. “And if we don’t get it, get used to the phrase, “President John McCain.”
Stampolis (pictured here with convention-goer “four waters”) used his final word to admonish and encourage the convention. Whichever candidate wins the nomination, he said, Democrats need to “get out there and make sure the next president is a Democrat. Because whomever the nominee is, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Henry Vandemeir (pictured at the bottom) then capped off the evening by presenting the CDC Club of the Year award to the Northeast Democratic Club of Los Angeles, which Colleen Colson and the two of us accepted.
The next day, the convention’s organizers began looking forward to next year. Greg Valtieri, a CDC regional officer from Los Angeles, Heather Lacayo, the CDC Secretary who played a central role in organizing the Fresno convention, and their confederates began the planning process for next year’s convention, hopefully in a hotel near you, hopefully with a Democrat in the White House.
by Dick Price
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