Five months after a resoundingly successful election that included winning key congressional races and capturing a supermajority in the state Legislature, the California Democratic Party spent much of its convention in Sacramento Saturday looking to the future.
Alongside party stalwarts like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Democratic Party Chair John Burton, who spent years in the Legislature and served as Senate president pro tem, were a handful of younger hands who enjoyed rousing receptions from the assembled delegates.
Speaker after speaker asserted a similar thesis California endured years of turmoil, but Democrats have led the state back to respectability. And some of those speakers, in addresses that had the feel of campaign speeches, seemed to be positioning themselves to help lead Democrats into what lies ahead.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, technically acting governor while Gov. Jerry Brown is traveling in China, drew thunderous applause for a speech that read like a liberal wish list: repealing the death penalty, legalizing same-sex marriage, decriminalizing and taxing marijuana.
"For all of our accomplishments and renewed optimism about the fate and future of California, we still have work to do," Newsom said.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, in a speech that called delegates to action by invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s exhortation that " 'wait' has almost always meant 'never,' " offered separate appeals to groups that represent key parts of the Democratic coalition.
"They say it to our immigrant communities: Immigrants just need to go back where they came from and wait," Harris said. "They say the same thing to our workers. Workers need to wait, be patient. Wait for those record profits to trickle down to your families. They say it to our students. We can't afford to invest in your future, not this year, you'll have to wait."
Delegates also heard from venture capitalist Tom Steyer, the key backer of November's Proposition 39, which changed the way out-of-state corporations are allowed to calculate their tax burdens and funds green energy. The 55-year-old billionaire said California's robust environmental laws set an example for the rest of the nation and called the state's energy policies "a quintessential California success story."
Noting that huge new oil reserves have been discovered, he called on lawmakers to establish an oil severance tax.
"This isn't just a question of our taking a fair share from huge, hugely profitable oil companies," Steyer said. "This is about doing the simple task the walk and chew gum of government to show us that we can do the right thing for the citizens of California in opposition of some very, very big companies."
Alex Walker, a 27-year-old first-time delegate from San Francisco, said he was glad to see a balance of speeches from young, energetic officials like Newsom and Harris and addresses from more seasoned politicians like Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who has been in office since 1973.
"We have to be ready," Walker said. "We don't want to be caught flat-footed when one of these seats opens up."
Kim Salter, 59, a psychologist and proxy delegate, said she was heartened by the presence of a large group of young, enthusiastic delegates at the convention. "I'm hopeful that young people are getting involved again," she said. "There was a period when they were very apathetic.
Fresh faces were also on display during a Saturday luncheon that put the spotlight on six House freshmen Pelosi praised as "very, very exceptional new California Democrats." All six members won competitive seats that will be top targets again in 2014, additions that Pelosi credited with helping to turn House Democrats into a "majority minority caucus."
"Let's keep the momentum going," freshman Rep. Scott Peters, who unseated a GOP incumbent for a San Diego-area seat, told luncheon attendees. "Let's keep the seats we won last year and let's go find some more."
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.