Indecision bug infects the California Democratic Party Convention

By John R. Lamb

Left: Venice activist Linda Lucks gets some face time with Gavin Newsom (Photo by Vivian Romero); Right: Activists pushed for legislative answers to the housing crisis (Photo by David Comden)

California is where you can’t run any farther without getting wet.

— Neil Morgan

Perhaps it was serendipitous that on the first day of the California Democratic Party Convention last week, San Diego’s temperature couldn’t reach 60 degrees.

A biting chill greeted thousands of fired-up delegates, statewide candidates, politics junkies and activists last Friday as they converged on the San Diego Convention Center for the Comic-Con of political geeks.

For the top-ticket 2018 statewide candidates, most would find that reaching 60% support of assembled delegates — the magic number that bestows official party endorsement status and the bounty it unleashes — to be equally elusive.

“I didn’t expect an endorsement in most of the races,” said San Diego County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Hayes. “We have so many amazing candi-
dates — an embarrassment of riches.”

The snarled knot of hopefuls vying to become California’s next governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general all failed to garner enough support to earn the party endorsement and a ticket to campaign riches. Delegates also could not settle on their pick for U.S. Senate — no doubt an awkward position for the long-time sitting incumbent, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate’s oldest member at 84. Doubly awkward is that her opponent to the left, state Sen. Kevin de León narrowly missed nabbing the party nod with 54% backing.

A lack of consensus about key races is not necessarily a bad thing this early in the game, said Venice activist Linda Lucks, an elected party delegate for Autumn Burke’s 62nd Assembly District.

“This was an interesting litmus test for where the candidates stand. It’s a long time before June, and a lot more information will become available by then,” said Lucks, who ended up backing former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin for the party’s gubernatorial endorsement, based on Eastin’s progressive politics and engaging presence.

“The convention was not as contentious as I thought it might be,” she said, “given that it’s an endorsement event and people get crazy about their chosen candidates.”

Thwarting the spasmodic Trump agenda was on everybody’s mind, naturally, but oddly that did not translate into the availability of any overtly anti-Trump paraphernalia.

“You didn’t see people wearing it,” Hayes concurred, suggesting this exemplified the “fundamental difference” between Democrats and Republicans.

“We’d rather move forward, take one issue at a time,” Hayes said. “If you get sucked into the rhetoric of hate that Donald Trump has for mocking, deriding, being sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and everything else that his presidency has embodied, we would never accomplish anything.

“Our goal is to accomplish something.”

By contrast, the Democrats — despite the inability to coalesce behind one candidate on multiple occasions — “felt to me very cohesive,” Hayes said. Despite some calls for candidates to drop out for the sake of unity, no one was biting.

“The Republicans, they can squeeze candidates out,” she added. “I don’t know how they do it, but they do it really well. For us, every candidate believes they can win. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the race. You can’t take that away from them, because it is the juice on which candidates run.”

That’s not to say it was all beer and Skittles even on the convention’s first day. The voices of rent-control advocates boisterously echoed through the convention corridors early on with the chant, “The rent, the rent is too damn high!”

Some convention observers would later note that California’s housing crunch seemed to be relegated to the political back burner over the three-day confab. One local party insider, speaking privately, didn’t push back on that sentiment but preferred to point out that a potential ideological bloodbath was avoided.

Added the insider: “There could have been some really contentious stuff, but common ground was reached.” An example? A potential platform fight over Israel was averted by compromise “at the last minute.” Hey now.

But not everyone felt the need to play nice at what is typically a mellow affair of reunions and impromptu candidate sightings with their contrails of exuberant supporters.

Outside, a youthful delegate from Los Angeles puffed on a cigarette and said he was most excited about an upcoming raffle drawing for a basket of cannabis-related products. The basket was courtesy of the Brownie Mary Democrats, long-time advocates of marijuana legalization who, along with CannaDems, were the only pot-oriented organizations to have booths at the convention.

The delegate lifted up an “I Stand with Black Women” T-shirt to reveal another one underneath proclaiming, “Solidarity By Any Means Necessary.”

He chose the shirt, he said, “because I feel like we’re fighting too much as a party right now. I used to give a lot of f*@ks about things, but because everyone’s fighting, I’m like let’s see who makes it into the top two and then fight hard. Right now, it’s a shit show.”

Before I could get his name, the delegate opened up his backpack and pulled out what appeared to be an aerosol can. “I gotta go back in,” he said. “I’m trying to get Gavin Newsom in a picture with this.”

He displayed the can, labeled “Back Off Harasser Repellent,” which was available for sale at a “convenience store” art installation at the convention (along with “Don’t Tell Me to Smile” mouthwash), perhaps the most visible nod to the #MeToo movement along with a “catcall” booth that some male candidates endured.

Veteran convention attendees did seem to notice a more subdued atmosphere. As one put it, “The joke going around was that there would be a lot less drinking than at conventions past.”

And for a city that now boasts a signifi-
cant number of recreational-marijuana dispensaries, there were no indications that the convention became a den of pot smoke. The Brownie Mary Democrats did request a toking area, founder Lanny Swerdlow said, but was denied.

But as I left the convention on Friday night, just as Gavin Newsom’s bright red “Nurses Trust Newsom” bus circled around for the umpteenth time, a delegate did ask me for directions to Harbor Collective just down the road.

“Need it for the weekend,” he sighed before hopping the trolley.


John R. Lamb covers politics for Argonaut sister paper San Diego CityBeat, where this story also appears.