New generation of California Democrats take their turn in the national spotlight

Published: Thursday, Sep. 6, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 - 10:52 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – One morning this week, before her speech on Wednesday to the Democratic National Convention, California Attorney General Kamala Harris left her political adviser by the arena stage and wandered across the hall.

The surroundings, Harris said, were "so unfamiliar," a discomfort that only made her more appealing to the national networks stationed here.

Twenty years after Jerry Brown addressed the Democratic National Convention in his final, failed bid for president, the 74-year-old, third-term governor elected this week to stay home. He had work to do, his office said, and if he was missed in Charlotte, it was difficult to tell.

At a convention fixated on the potential of even minor officeholders, it is Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – and to a lesser extent Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who are in demand. They are making speeches, deflecting questions about their political ambitions and bounding past each other in the halls.

"Jack!" Harris yelled, embracing Delaware Gov. Jack Markell as she finished her walk-through on the convention stage.

Markell called Harris the "best of the best," while CNN's John Berman was so disarmed by her popularity he had difficulty introducing her before an interview on the convention floor.

"I lost my train of thought," he told his viewers, "because so many people are here getting their picture taken with her, because she is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party."

Berman called Harris "obviously a very popular person here, rumored as a possible Supreme Court choice at some point?" Harris laughed.

"Oh, you know," she said. "I don't like to sit down for long periods of time."

Harris, 47, Villaraigosa, 59, and Newsom, 44, are three Democrats considered potential contenders for governor or U.S. Senate. Mentioned far less frequently is the state Assembly speaker, John A. Pérez, who addressed the convention before Harris on Wednesday.

Pérez's spokesman promoted the appearance by writing in a statement that Pérez is "continuing his ascent as a rising political star," though the speaker, 42, said he didn't write that line and that, furthermore, "I hate that kind of stuff."

Newsom, who arrived here Tuesday, was not invited to speak. Instead, he addressed a half-empty room of California delegates at an early morning breakfast at their hotel.

"Everyone awake?" he said.

Brown's office did not make the governor available for comment. Neither did California's incumbent U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have prominent convention roles.

"I think you'd have to characterize them as the old guard," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "I mean, my God, look at their ages. They've been in politics for decades, all three of them."

Feinstein, who is running for a fourth full term this year, said she is glad the younger politicians are getting so much attention.

"I'm delighted to see it," the 79-year-old Democrat said. "We have a very deep bench, and that's the wonderful thing about the Democratic Party."

Earlier this week in Charlotte, state Sen. Kevin de León and Assembly members Tom Ammiano and Gil Cedillo stopped on their way to dinner to talk about what de León called a "different era" in California politics, one in which "the landscape has changed."

Ammiano, of San Francisco, said members of the Democratic Party's newer class have "more of an activist background," and de León, of Los Angeles, said it is not unreasonable to think some Democrat from California could be president someday. He said Harris and Villaraigosa both have "upswing," but he said, "I guess I'm holding out for the idea of a Democrat from California, rather than for an individual person."

Harris, who has largely made her reputation battling banks in the foreclosure crisis, used her speech Wednesday to accuse Mitt Romney of promoting policies that would have hurt struggling homeowners.

"He said we should let foreclosures – and I quote – 'hit the bottom' so the market could – I quote – 'run its course,' she said. "Run its course. That's not leadership. Doing nothing while the middle class is hurting, that's not leadership. Loose regulations and lax enforcement. That's not leadership. That's abandoning our middle class."

She called the election "a choice between an America where opportunity is open to everyone, where everyone plays by the same set of rules," or one that "tilts the playing field to help the wealthiest few."

Harris, who became California's first female attorney general and the first nonwhite person to hold that position when she took office last year, woke early Wednesday to address the state delegation from Maryland, and sat on a PBS "NewsHour" set the night before.

Earlier in the week, when she spoke to the California delegation, former Gov. Gray Davis was in the crowd.

"Elections are always about tomorrow, and it's good to have a strong bench," said Davis, who was afforded a standing ovation and was held up for photographs for more than 30 minutes, lingering long after Harris left the room. "The Democrats can be very proud of the next generation of leadership."

His wife, Sharon, was standing beside him.

"I was going to remind you, when you worked for Jerry Brown, he was the rising star," she told her husband. "Remember?"

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by David Siders



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