Capitol Alert

Rent control and health care: Liberals fight for the soul of the California Democratic Party

What do California Democrats stand for?

Delegates to the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego have varied views on what the party stands for in 2018.
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Delegates to the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego have varied views on what the party stands for in 2018.

As her primetime speech at the California Democratic Party convention ran long Saturday, an orchestral recording drowned out Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "I guess my time is up," she said, as she walked off stage midway through her remarks.

"Yeah! Your time is up," supporters of her primary challengers, state Senate leader Kevin de León and attorney Pat Harris, shouted, leaping at a chance to tell California's senior senator to retire.

Housing activists marched and protested on the floors of the convention hall, urging candidates to back a proposal to strengthen California rent control.

And at one point, angry over Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon's decision to hold a proposed single-payer universal health care bill in committee, a person in the crowded room at the Progressive Caucus Friday night yelled that Rendon was a "DINO," or "Democrat-in-name-only."

“Free the bill,” the crowd shouted following the outburst.

Liberal Democratic Party activists in the nation's most populous state are flexing their muscle, attempting to push the party even further left. The stakes are high in a midterm election year when Democrats are working to create a blue wave of support, with hopes of reclaiming control of the House of Representatives this November and ultimately, defeating President Donald Trump.

The party establishment says the Bernie Sanders wing and more traditional Democrats must come together. But the left-leaning base of the California Democratic Party says now is not the time to play it safe.

“I don’t think it’s fringe to be against oil money or support single-payer,” said Karen Bernal, chairwoman of the state party’s Progressive Caucus. “I think what you’re witnessing is a burgeoning, ascendant base that is demanding these kinds of policy changes — versus a leadership entrenched in corporate interests. We’re fighting it out for influence and...the soul of the party.”

Democratic delegates who participate in party conventions traditionally are more active, more liberal and more outspoken than the typical Democratic or left-leaning independent voter.

The most well-received speaker of the weekend was Rep. Maxine Waters, who on Saturday unequivocally called for Trump’s impeachment, rousing the crowd more than party giants Sen. Kamala Harris, Feinstein, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti or Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

Waters, of Los Angeles, threw delegates red meat: "It is time to get ready for impeachment," she said, later chanting, "Impeach 45, impeach 45, impeach 45." Her speech drew loud whooping and cheering from the convention hall.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and California Democratic Party Vice Chair Alex Gallardo-Rooker used their time at the podium at the California Democratic Convention on Feb. 24 to call to impeach Donald Trump.

While it does not represent the views held by everyone in the party, activists open to that message are putting pressure on candidates and officeholders in new ways that are gaining traction. No candidate running for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general reached the 60 percent approval threshold needed to win the party’s endorsement, underscoring deep intraparty fissures.

Experts say it reflects a party that is becoming more liberal, as young people and Latinos comprise a greater share of the electorate in California.

"There is no question that the Democratic base has moved considerably to the left — I don't mean just in the last 10 or 20 years. I mean just in the past few years," Democratic strategist Garry South said. "And this isn't just the base that's moved to the left. It is the governing mechanism of the state Democratic Party that has moved considerably left, too. There's been a very substantial shift."

Democrats who identify with Sanders picked up a large share of new delegate slots last year. And Feinstein, a party icon, did not receive its endorsement and faces her first challenge from a well-known Democrat since she first won the seat in 1992. (De León, who is running to the left of Feinstein and trying to gain support from the party's liberal base, did not get the endorsement either. Though de León captured 54 percent of delegate votes, to Feinstein's 37 percent, an endorsement requires 60 percent.)

Pro-rent control advocates staged protests and interrupted candidate gatherings throughout the weekend to urge support for the repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which limits rent control in cities. Democrats in the Assembly killed the plan last year.

"It’s been my dream ever since I worked on housing work in California to repeal Costa-Hawkins, because it is the thing that is holding us back. But I never believed that it was going to be this soon," said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, which advocates for renters. "What’s happening is that housing is becoming the biggest issue for low- and middle-income people all over the state... We’re seeing support in ways that we never have before."

Before courting delegates from the party's Environmental Caucus, each candidate for governor was required to sign a pledge agreeing not to accept money from oil industry interests in the future.

"They all signed it," said RL Miller, the caucus chairwoman. And while a couple dozen Democrats in the Legislature still take campaign checks from oil companies, Miller contends "there has been an enormous sea change in the relationship between the Democratic Party and money.

"What we're seeing now is this idea that some money is better than other money. Part of it is attributable to the Bernie Sanders campaign, where he showed that money is OK as long as it comes $27 at a time."

Latino activists pushing to protect immigrants from deportation are also speaking up.

De León, author of the California “sanctuary state” bill that passed in 2017, told the Chicano Latino Caucus Friday night, ”I am one of you," hoping to elevate his political profile by raising concerns over Feinstein's past comments on immigration. Early in her career, she referred to undocumented immigrants as "illegal aliens" and called for stricter border security.

"We haven’t seen her in 25 years," Carlos Alcala, chairman of the caucus, said. The comment was met with laughter and some boos.

Kevin de Leon used his Feb. 24 speech at the California Democratic Convention to take aim at his Senate campaign rival, incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Rendon, the Assembly speaker, is also feeling pressure from the liberal wing of his party.

He shelved Senate Bill 562, the single-payer health care proposal, last year citing its lack of a financing plan. Since then, the California Nurses Association and other vocal supporters have continued to chastise him in person and on social media.

While most other prominent party leaders in California, including the incoming state Senate leader Toni Atkins, delivered speeches Saturday afternoon, Rendon largely stayed behind-the-scenes, opting to avoid the convention halls and instead holding private meetings at his hotel. His spokesman Kevin Liao cited the nurses’ public shaming for his absence.

In an interview before the convention, Rendon said he’s felt a "constant tug" between ideological factions of the party since he was elected to the Legislature in 2012, but the issues change.

"The energy’s great and exciting. As a fellow progressive, it's where I want to see the party go," he said.

But as the leader of a caucus that until recently held a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly, he also makes decisions to protect targeted Democratic members in moderate districts that sometimes infuriate the party’s most liberal constituencies. He said each issue is a "balancing act" between alienating the left and pushing voters too much to the right.

Not all of the liberal tactics are working.

Half a dozen legislative and congressional incumbents, including Rendon and Pelosi, were targeted last month by local activists, who tried to block their endorsement by the party because they took positions that the activists felt were at odds with Democratic values. None of them were successful.

“It’s an indication that, overall, folks in our party are happy with what we’ve done,” Rendon said.

And the rent control advocates have not persuaded key party forces to back repeal restrictions in the Costa-Hawkins law.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner in the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, did not agree that the rent control restrictions should be repealed: "I think there's an opportunity for a compromise on it,” he said.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was booed during a visit to the party’s Labor Caucus on Friday night where delegates called him a "union buster," also did not back a Costa-Hawkins repeal outright. Nor did state Treasurer John Chiang.

Delaine Eastin, former state superintendent of public instruction, was the only candidate to unequivocally endorse repeal.

Despite criticism of her at this convention, Feinstein is leading de León in fundraising and public opinion polling.

Rose Kapolczynski, longtime campaign director for former Sen. Barbara Boxer, said deep rifts in the party — illuminated at party conventions — illustrate challenges ahead.

"Democratic Party delegates are much more progressive, and they're willing to take action. But the party is changing," Kapolczynski said. "Some of the issues you see at the Democratic convention end up emerging years later as mainstream issues. Bail reform was a secondary issue at many past conventions. Now it's very visible. Twenty years ago, marriage equality wasn't mainstream and now it's widely accepted as law of the land.”

"People may lose an election here. They may lose a platform amendment, but that doesn't mean they've lost in the long-term," she said. "You can lose the battle and years later, win the war."