The California Democratic Convention this weekend was not a good one for Party insurgents hoping to push for progressive change and hold its leaders accountable.
At the 50th Assembly District caucus, “incumbent” Betsy Butler won the Party endorsement over progressive Torie Osborn – with major assistance from Speaker John Perez. Thirty eight of Butler’s 62 votes came from delegates appointed by State Assembly members outside the district – giving her enough of a lopsided win that, under Party rules, precluded a Convention floor fight.
In a prelude to the tax debate that is to come, delegates clearly preferred the “Millionaire’s Tax” over Governor Brown’s temporary tax increase – as grassroots signature gatherers were out in full force. But the Party opted not to allow delegates to endorse November ballot measures this weekend, having them instead ratify a couple non-controversial June ballot measures – and taking up the tax measures at July’s Executive Board meeting. Jerry Brown deftly sidestepped the tax issue in his speech, assuring delegates that they would all get their “marching orders” soon enough.
The California Democratic Convention is the state’s largest annual gathering of Party activists – and it’s time for politicians to thank volunteers for the work they’ve done in the past year, give inspiring speeches, throw parties and focus on goals for the next election. But it’s also a rare opportunity for the rank-and-file to influence the Party’s direction by voting on endorsements – and sometimes, that’s controversial.
Which is why the Party does what it can to put on a happy face at these Conventions – discouraging fights it may deem too “divisive.” And to prevent that, mechanisms are put in place so as to not embarrass the Sacramento leadership. Delegates who were elected at the grassroots can have their say, but so do the ones appointed by politicians – and the 50th Assembly District vote exposed a fatal flaw in the process.
Party Rules Prevent Torie Osborn From Having a Prayer
As I reported last week, State Assemblywoman Betsy Butler of Los Angeles (elected in 2010 to represent Torrance, Redondo Beach and other South Bay cities) now has a “swing” district after redistricting. Rather than run for re-election there and help the Party, she moved to Beverly Hills and is running in the 50th Assembly District – a very safe Democratic area that includes Santa Monica, West Hollywood & Malibu. And because the new 50th A.D. overlaps 1.7% of her old district, she is the “incumbent.”
At the Convention, Assembly Speaker John Perez addressed delegates and said his priority for 2012 was for Democrats to win a two-thirds majority. But if actions speak louder than words, his real priority is getting re-elected Speaker. And to do that, he must show all incumbent legislators that he has their “back” – even if they made the foolish decision to run in a safe blue district. In the 50th Assembly District, Butler is challenging progressive Democrat Torie Osborn – and she needs his help.
Here is where State Party rules are not only stacked in favor of incumbents – but give politicians like John Perez an unsavory role in manipulating the outcome. On Saturday, delegates from the 50th Assembly District gathered to make the Party endorsement. Assembly members can appoint up to five delegates, but only three must live in the legislator’s district. Therefore, Perez asked all Democratic Assembly members to set aside their two “non-resident” slots – so he can appoint delegates who live in the 50th District, and will vote for Betsy Butler over Torie Osborn.
As I walked in to observe the 50th Assembly District caucus on Saturday (as a San Francisco delegate, I could not vote – but I attended to observe), aides for Perez were in full force with clipboards – keeping track of who had shown up to vote for Butler. Aides for other Democratic Assembly members like Fiona Ma had already been working the Convention for the past day, promoting Betsy Butler. This was a well-coordinated effort to rig the endorsement, for the Speaker to deliver for one of his members. The Osborn campaign knew they didn’t have much of a shot.
When the vote came down, it wasn’t even close. Out of 85 votes cast, Butler beat Osborn by a 62-20 margin – with three for “No Endorsement.” But 38 of Butler’s votes came from delegates who were appointed by Assembly members who don’t represent the 50th Assembly District (some as far away as Riverside County.)
Is this the first time such a rigged vote happened at a Convention? Of course not. In 2008, State Senator Carole Migden desperately tried to fight off a challenge from Mark Leno – and likewise had delegates (appointed by politicians outside her Senate District) vote in the regional caucus. It was worse than the Butler-Osborn fight – and prompted the Party to change its rules, requiring Assembly members to appoint at least 3 delegates from their own district. After the vote, Leno supporters appealed by gathering 300 signatures, and bringing it to the Convention floor the next day. Convention delegates then voted to reverse the Migden endorsement.
So did the Osborn supporters collect 300 signatures to bring it to the Convention Floor? Nope, because the rules have since changed. A Party Endorsement at the regional caucus can now only be brought to the floor if the endorsed candidate received less than two-thirds of the vote. If the 38 delegated appointed by outside politicians had not voted, Butler would have still outpolled Osborn – but only by 4 votes. Therefore, it would have been close enough to appeal it to the Convention Floor. Instead, Osborn’s only recourse was to file a complaint with the Party Endorsement Review Committee – a “super-committee” made up of insiders.
The PERC Committee met at 8 a.m. Sunday morning to review the outcome, and to no one’s surprise voted to uphold Butler’s endorsement. “If the Rules were violated, that would be one thing,” said Party Chair John Burton. “But those are the cards being dealt.” Absent violation of the Party Rules, nothing could really be done.
Convention Quietly Side-Steps Millionaire’s Tax
As delegates convened in San Diego this weekend, arguably the most crucial issue is the various tax measures on the November ballot – the Millionaire’s Tax the Courage Campaign and other progressive groups are promoting, and Governor Jerry Brown’s temporary increase in the sales tax that leaves much to be desired. It was very clear that the Millionaire’s Tax is the one with grassroots support, the one with the most enthusiasm among the Party’s rank-and-file. And if a formal vote had been held this weekend among delegates, the Party would have endorsed the Millionaire’s Tax.
Too bad that was not on the agenda. With Jerry Brown and the Party’s Sacramento leadership pushing the alternative proposal, now was not the moment to make them look bad. So the Party conveniently came up with the excuse that we would only be taking up endorsements for the June ballot at this convention – and on Sunday, the delegates did vote to endorse two relatively quiet, non-controversial propositions.
Endorsements for the November ballot will be considered in July, at the State Party’s Executive Board meeting (i.e., the E-Board.) In the 15 years that I’ve been attending California Democratic Conventions, postponing a matter for the E-Board has always been the ultimate punt. If something is too controversial, better it be handled a few months later – when only a fraction of delegates will be present, and there won’t be any media coverage. A Convention vote on the Millionaire’s Tax could have sent a strong message to Governor Jerry Brown, but that wasn’t what the Party wanted.
As other media outlets have noted, Brown quietly side-stepped the tax issue when he addressed the Convention on Saturday. But what he actually did say about the subject was even worse. “We got some issues,” he candidly admitted, but said that we can resolve this problem in the future. “You’ll get your marching orders soon.”
Is that how our Governor views delegates to the State Party Convention? Wait for the real decisions to be made, and then go and push his tax measure because it’s the “right” thing to do? Too many of us are angry at the Governor for pushing his weak, watered-down tax measure that is only temporary and in some cases regressive. We want to be active partners with the leadership to negotiate what is the best way to pass real revenue measures in California.
But as far as Jerry Brown is considered, we’re only there to take “marching orders.”