RoseAnn DeMoro, the outspoken leader of the California Nurses Association, looked out at a horde of red-clad supporters as they prepared to march on the state Democratic Party’s convention Friday to advocate for public-funded universal health care.
“They are a party in absolute crisis and denial,” DeMoro said of the resistance her group, which supported Bernie Sanders for president, encounters from the Democratic establishment. She offered an explanation for the friction coloring their disagreements: “They are too comfortable.”
Inside the convention hall, DeMoro’s nurses booed and heckled Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. They repeatedly interrupted Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Activists marched to the historic mansion of Gov. Jerry Brown protesting contributions from oil companies.
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Late Saturday, the party nearly elected as its chairwoman Kimberly Ellis, a liberal from outside the establishment who ran on “redefining” what it means to be a Democrat. The new chairman, Eric Bauman, was greeted with loud boos from her supporters.
In the months since Donald Trump’s unforeseen election, California Democrats have held up their liberal state as a fortress of the resistance, repeatedly invoking their efforts to address climate change, deliver health care to millions and protect those in the country illegally.
But emboldened activists who believe it’s not enough to resist the Republican president are pressing for a shift further left in next year’s elections, demanding that issues like income inequality, universal health care, free community college and student loan debt forgiveness, affordable housing and campaign finance reform be treated not as slogans but as litmus tests.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist and Democratic donor, said the last election was a wake-up call for millions of Americans whose trust in government had eroded with the rise of corporate influence on politics.
“If last year’s election taught us anything, it’s that too many Americans believe our political system is rigged against them,” Steyer told about 3,000 delegates on Sunday. “And they’re not wrong, because corporate interests … still hold the high cards at the table of power. And the people can’t win as long as the likes of oil, tobacco and Pharma put profit margins ahead of people.”
The complexion of the state party traces its recent changes to the election of new activists early this year, when slates backed by DeMoro’s union and the Sanders-inspired Our Revolution took a majority of the elected positions that were up. While it wasn’t enough to push Ellis past the favorite Bauman in the party chair’s race, the new bloc wants more than lip service for its preferred causes.
“Democrats moved to the right for so long that they were basically centrists,” said Mike Van Gorder, a delegate from Glendale.
He added: “It absolutely needs to change.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner to replace Brown in next year’s race, has long positioned himself to capture the wave. Before scooping ice cream for delegates and helping host a concert with Common and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Newsom previewed a combination of new policy proposals and recycled approaches from his time as San Francisco mayor.
Newsom wants to push for free community college and an expansion of early childhood education coupled with college-savings accounts.
He wants full-service community schools that would stay open every day and a health care system that would cover everyone.
Newsom said he also has a plan to break Wall Street’s “choke-hold” on state finances: creation of a state bank he contends could be used to finance infrastructure, repair roads, bridges and airports, provide loans to students and small businesses and build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.
And, calling it his “moonshot priority,” Newsom said he wants to reduce childhood poverty.
“This is our mission. This is our mandate,” he said of his goals. “An economy for all. Injustice for none.”
Yet amid the calls for a new direction are signs of deepening dissent over who can claim the mantle. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, referred to his long record in office and criticized the use of platitudes.
“There are some who have never been in the trenches, in the fight for social and economic justice,” Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker who once pushed to expand Medi-Cal for poor children and give uninsured children health coverage.
“These ‘Davos Democrats’ fly over the homes of Californians left behind – have never been in their living rooms,” he said, referencing an economic meeting of world politicians, business leaders and celebrities in the Swiss Alps to paint them as out of touch.
Democrats, Villaraigosa said, must prioritize the needs of bus riders over Tesla drivers. Speaking directly to delegates, he added, “I ask you to support a candidate who has been in the trenches his whole life, fighting for working people.”
Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist, said the pressure is being felt.
“I do think they are being forced to talk about those things that in a ‘traditional’ governor’s race they wouldn’t have to have that conversation, particularly this far out.”
Taking the temperature of the room is a familiar exercise in state races. In 1990, as she campaigned for governor, Dianne Feinstein’s overt support for the death penalty drew loud boos from activists. Her campaign featured the footage in TV ads to demonstrate her independence over then-Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. She lost to Pete Wilson in a general election.
While the Democratic Party, whose platform advocates universal health care and a ban on fracking, has always been liberal, what’s changing is the Democratic electorate, said Garry South, a longtime consultant.
If a candidate ran an ad in which they got booed by party stalwarts, South said, “it would be a death-knell today.”
Underscoring their inroads, DeMoro, of the nurses union, received an invitation to address the convention for the first time, garnering applause a day after she spoke about putting up primary challenges to lawmakers.
“Part of the elephant in the room is Republicans,” she said. “Part of the elephant in the room is Republican ideology. … We have our share of blame as Democrats for what’s happening.”
DeMoro pointed to the hundreds of seats Democrats have hemorrhaged in Legislatures across the country.
“That’s not OK. It isn’t Donald Trump,” she said. “The truth of the matter is we’ve got to find a way to absolutely unify us and set us on the right path.”