The delegates to the annual California Democratic Party convention began trickling into the San Diego Convention Center on April 27, and one of the first people they saw was Barbara Cummings. She had stationed herself about a block away from the entrance and was holding a big "Impeach Bush and Cheney" sign.
"It’s wonderful," the San Diego activist told me. "The delegates all want their pictures taken with us. The tourists want pictures too."
Inside the convention hall, the grassroots sentiment was pretty similar. The black "impeach" lapel stickers were everywhere, hundreds of delegates wore black "impeach" T-shirts, and impeachment banners and signs flew everywhere.
Within official party circles, though, the mood was slightly different. Art Torres, the chair of the state party, told the press early on that he expected the war and impeachment to dominate the convention, but when I asked him if there was any disconnect between the party faithful calling for impeachment and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that wasn’t an option, he simply said, "No. That’s the Democratic Party." He added, "We see a distance between the grass roots and the leadership. That’s not uncommon."
In many ways, that was the theme of this convention. The California Democratic Party is changing, in part driven by a new wave of young, Internet-savvy activists and bloggers who are practically screaming for respect. And the old guard is having a very hard time giving up control.
At the Resolutions Committee meeting April 27, Torres, a smooth operator with more than 30 years’ experience in party politics, gave a textbook demonstration of how the powers that be keep the grass roots in line.
On one level, the resolutions that get passed at these conventions don’t matter that much; they don’t have any binding authority. But they do express the official position of the state party, can put pressure on Democratic elected officials – and sometimes highlight the schisms in the famously fractious organization.
In this case, activists had put forward a half-dozen reform proposals that all had the same issue at heart: control of state party money.
Howard Dean took on the old guard nationally when he decided to put money into party-building efforts and candidates in all 50 states; his fans in California want to see the state party follow that model in all 58 counties. They also want more transparency in how the money is handled.
The state party chair, of course, keeps a lot of his power and authority by controlling that cash, and the legislative leaders keep their powerful posts and ensure the loyalty of their troops in part by determining which Democrats get the resources in election years.
The resolutions called for an outside audit of party money and a formal 58-county strategy. Before a single supporter of those measures had a chance to speak, the chair of the Resolutions Committee turned the floor over to Torres – who suggested the whole thing be referred to a new task force, which he would appoint, for consideration at some time in the future. The committee chair quickly called for a motion and a vote, and the panel – also all appointed by Torres – swept every party-reform resolution right off the table.
The same pattern played out with impeachment; a strong grassroots effort became a weak final resolution. As one committee member told me, "Speaker Pelosi is against impeachment, so we can’t really vote for it."
With the early California primary, the state convention was a big-time event. Seven presidential candidates showed up, more than had ever come to a state party event in history. There was a palpable feeling of energy at the convention, a sense that this time around, the Democrats might actually be ready to win the White House.
On the convention floor the mood was festive as Hillary Clinton strode through a side entrance and walked past a mob of supporters to the stage. Her speech was about what I expected – standard stump lines, but well delivered and full of energy. She had the crowd with her for about 10 minutes, until she mentioned Iraq – at which point the boos and catcalls began, the people in the seats got restive, and the mood was shattered. "She still won’t apologize," one young delegate told me, shaking her head.
Barack Obama looked like the rock star he is, jogging through the entrance with a huge smile. In person he looks like he’s barely out of his 20s – and his army, while smaller then Clinton’s, was more diverse and a lot younger. He’s a dynamic speaker and got a huge ovation when he announced that "I stood up in 2002, when it wasn’t popular to stand up, and said [the war] was a bad idea."
Obama split without talking to the press. Clinton arrived 20 minutes late to a packed press conference and said very little of note.
John Edwards, who spoke Sunday morning, April 29, got his own star treatment and demonstrated a key difference with Clinton when he announced that "I voted for this war, and I was wrong to vote for this war." He was also the only candidate who actually talked about poverty in America. He showed up on time for his press availability; I managed to get the first question.
"Senator," I said, "the 25 top hedge fund managers in this country made enough money between them last year to pay the salaries of all 88,000 New York City public school teachers for three years. I know you want to repeal the Bush tax cuts, but beyond that, shouldn’t we actually raise taxes on the very rich so we can pay the teachers a little better?"
"It’s a good question," he said, "and it’s worthy of consideration." But for now, Edwards won’t go beyond restoring the tax code to its Bill Clinton-era levels, which are still far, far too rewarding to the tiny segment of the country that earns and controls the vast majority of the income and wealth.
I got to ask Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut the same question; he kindly agreed to a private interview and gave me 10 minutes or so. He, like Edwards, was kinda sorta maybe willing to consider raising taxes on people who make upward of $250 million a year.
I suppose this is progress.
All the liberal bloggers came to the April 27 evening fundraiser for Jerry McNerney, who defeated Ricahrd Pombo, and Charlie Brown, a Democrat who wants to unseat John Doolittle in congressional District 4 (north of Sacramento). Brown is a favorite of the blogosphere; he’s also a candidate who was barely on the official party radar when he ran in 2006.
All that has changed dramatically – with Doolittle circling the drain and Brown showing surprising strength. Even Pelosi plugged him from the convention stage.
But the only elected official I saw at the fundraiser was Assemblymember Mark Leno.
The people in the room represented a very different approach to state politics. It’s not even an entirely ideological division; it’s more about a form of activism. The bloggers (who aren’t just writing about the party but trying to change it) are still the party outsiders now – but they’ve already raised more money for Brown than any other single source, mostly in small contributions. And I suspect that if he gets elected, he’ll remember the people who were there for him first.
The outsiders still don’t understand how all the hardball politics work at conventions, but they’re learning. They’re also emerging as a tremendous force in American politics, and in California they’re knocking, loudly, on the state party doors. And Art Torres is a fool if he thinks he’s not going to have to let them in. *
For much, much more on the state convention, go to the Guardian politics blog at www.sfbg.com/blogs/politics.