Capitol Alert

Boos for the moderates: Early primary gives California Democrats chance to push party left

They booed when a candidate criticized socialism. They cheered when another vowed to tax the rich to fund a Green New Deal. And they jumped to their feet when speakers called for impeaching President Donald Trump.

Emboldened by midterm victories and unprecedented attention from a flock of presidential candidates, California Democrats leveraged their state party convention to push the party left.

The San Francisco gathering over the weekend served as an audition for candidates to court early support among a liberal group of influential party leaders. Thanks to a new early primary, delegates in a state that’s usually considered more of a cash cow by presidential hopefuls basked in a new-found ability to influence policy.

Lawmakers and former Gov. Jerry Brown moved the state’s usual June primary up three months to March 3, 2020, shifting California from one of the last states to nominate a candidate to one of the first.

“It’s really cool to see presidential candidates taking our votes seriously,” said Cory Allen, a 32-year-old from Long Beach who has served as a delegate for 15 years. “Normally we’ve been a convention that solidifies whoever the frontrunner is, so to see everyone coming out of the woodwork to court our interests and talk to us about our issues is really, really cool.”

The March date means candidates need to engage with California Democrats’ stances on education, immigration and the environment, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

“It’s not about the ATM now, it’s about policy, it’s about values,” Newsom told reporters after his Saturday convention speech. “I’m glad that these candidates are now compelled to spend a little more time here, not just asking for money, checks and donors but have to also attach themselves to some of our values.”

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, told the convention Sunday that America’s best path forward is leftward.

Speaking to a crowded room of supporters, the Vermont senator said that in order to advance a “political revolution,” Democrats must not settle for middle ground on issues ranging from environmental policy to cutting prescription drug prices.

“We cannot go back to the old ways,” Sanders said. “We have to go forward with a new and progressive agenda,” emphasizing that he’s dedicated to abortion rights, taking on the National Rifle Association and dismantling the current prison system.

His remarks served as a rebuke to former Vice President Joe Biden, the presidential frontrunner in California who opted not to attend the weekend event in San Francisco.

Unlike “those who have chosen for whatever reason not to be in this room,” Sanders said, the party must “give millions of young people and working people ...a reason to believe that politics is relevant to their lives.”

That message earned roaring applause and a standing ovation, a stark contrast to the receptions given former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, who outlined more moderate policies and rejected the idea of a single-payer health care system. Hickenlooper drew boos when he warned that embracing “socialism” would hand the 2020 election to Trump.

Other aspiring commanders in chief earned standing ovations and roaring cheers when they promised to provide “Medicare for all” and reinstate environmental policy Trump has overturned.

Delegates from across California said they were particularly excited about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s promise to break up large tech companies.

Omer Sohail, a delegate from Riverside, said Warren would be the best candidate to release the “tax dollars stuck at the top.”

Warren enthusiasts also said they believed she was the best candidate to combat climate change, finance new infrastructure and alleviate economic inequality.

Luis Aleman, a 23-year-old delegate from Santa Ana, said he thought Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg got the warmest reception on Saturday.

He was particularly impressed by Warren’s specific policy points in her speech. In contrast, he thought California Sen. Kamala Harris’ stump speech was more generic.

“I was hoping she would talk more about her California roots and about criminal justice and housing,” he said. “This is her hometown so I thought she would have a more agenda-driven speech.”

California has rarely gotten much attention from presidential candidates in the last three decades, given that its primary trailed many other states.

In 2016, as a crowded field of GOP candidates sought to prevent Donald Trump’s nomination, candidate Ted Cruz attended a state Republican Party convention, where he blasted state environmental policies intended to protect the Delta smelt. He suggested he might prefer the fish “with cheese and crackers.”

But that was an unusual instance in which a California-specific issue was discussed.

Over the weekend, several candidates tailored their speeches to the crowd.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro mentioned Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old black man killed by police in Sacramento, in his call for racial justice in policing. Castro also drew cheers when he talked about California’s “rental affordability crisis.”

California is still an expensive place to campaign, which might temper its draw for candidates short on cash. But San Francisco Mayor London Breed predicted California would lead the party to victory in 2020.

“California isn’t just the heart of the resistance,” she said. ”We are the future.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.