Capitol Alert

Kamala Harris builds enthusiasm to win over Democratic Party activists

Attorney General Kamala Harris won her party’s endorsement for U.S. Senate at California Democrats’ state convention on Saturday in San Jose.
Attorney General Kamala Harris won her party’s endorsement for U.S. Senate at California Democrats’ state convention on Saturday in San Jose. The Associated Press

The Democrats campaigning in California’s U.S. Senate race came into the weekend with clear, albeit opposite, objectives.

Kamala Harris, the state attorney general supported by a swarm of elected leaders, was seeking her party’s coveted support. Loretta Sanchez, a veteran congresswoman, merely needed to block the endorsement, an exercise that proved too onerous given Harris’ immense popularity with activists. Harris received nearly 80 percent of the vote.

The outpouring of approbation, which exceeded most expectations, deals a potentially harrowing blow to Sanchez and allows the California Democratic Party to spend on Harris’ behalf in traditional ways such as mailers, phone-banking and precinct walks.

“It’s obviously a big step forward for her campaign,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “The preferences of establishment Democrats are quite clear: They overwhelmingly have a higher regard for Harris than Sanchez. The question is, how does this translate into actual votes, and that’s something entirely different. ... This race is far from over.”

Sanchez said her goal is to make it to the runoff, where her fortunes can change.

Yet as thousands of activists departed the three-day state party convention, it was the frantic scramble for votes that offered delegates perhaps the fullest exposure to the candidates competing to become the state’s first new senator in nearly a quarter-century.

Harris sought to position herself as the best-equipped and weightiest successor to Sen. Barbara Boxer, shifting among conference rooms with an entourage of elected leaders, campaign aides and volunteers. Waving at her record as a career prosecutor and then attorney general, Harris spoke in broad strokes about what she sees as the profound and direct impact of law enforcement, her life’s work, on society’s most vulnerable populations.

Her speech on the convention floor Saturday incorporated her support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, expanding voting rights and overturning the court case that unleashed a torrent of money in politics. Harris wrapped her disgust for the intransigence of Washington into a recitation about the politics of poison she sees running though the Republican presidential contest. She called it a race to the bottom.

Seizing on GOP front-runner Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” Harris asked, “Again for whom?”

Sanchez focused her remarks on her work and the people her preferred policies would affect as she roamed the concourse with just a handful of staff members and her husband. Addressing the convention Saturday, Sanchez cast herself as a progressive and said she believed working people, like her own family, would coalesce around her.

“I know the rank and file in every union are with me,” Sanchez said, offering that she joined independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, in voting against the Iraq war.

Sanchez, reminding the crowd about her opposition to the Patriot Act, said her legislative and national security experience is unrivaled: “While other candidates talk about boldly changing Washington, I have done it for 20 years.”

Sanchez leaned on her two decades in Congress in freewheeling appearances throughout the weekend. Not mentioning Harris by name, she suggested her opponent is too timid, pointing to her refusal to endorse ballot measures, including a pair of potential initiatives that would raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour. Harris backs a $15 base wage but as a general practice does not take sides on initiatives.

It was in the small gatherings, before women, veterans, environmentalists, the LGBT community and Latinos, that the candidates flashed their contrasting personalities and approaches. They also had less control over the environment.

Harris drew tepid enthusiasm, and a vastly curtailed speaking slot, in front of a group of Latino Democrats chaired by a Sanchez supporter. In a meeting with rural residents, Harris caught flak for not bringing her campaign to far-flung counties, hearing cries to visit Mendocino, Humboldt and Calaveras counties. She didn’t argue.

“You’re right,” Harris said, promising upcoming visits. “I got it.”

Sanchez was generally given less time to speak and only seldom allowed to answer questions from activists. When she did talk, her remarks largely stuck to a series of personal anecdotes to suit her audience.

Chatting up seniors, she told a story about her grandmother, a cook who worked six days a week and went to church on Sundays. She retired on just $484 a month, and moved in with her daughter, unable to afford her own home. Sanchez also touched on her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and her push to fund a cure.

At a standing-room-only meeting of the party’s influential labor caucus, Sanchez hugged former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang – both potential candidates for governor in 2018 – before addressing her “brothers and sisters” in the room. A former member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, she told the crowd, “All of the members of my family have been union members.”

She touted her voting record on labor issues and said that for 20 years she and the union organizers in the room have “stood together on picket lines.”

“I am with you,” Sanchez said.

The crowd applauded, but it was nowhere near as energetic a reception as Harris received when she entered the room a moment later, accompanied by Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and Dolores Huerta, the civil rights activist.

“I see you have a posse here, for crying out loud,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

Harris said the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia heightened the significance of the election, with the Senate holding the power to confirm his successor.

“The stakes are high,” Harris said.

Late that night, Sanchez held a reception of her own that kicked off with old-fashioned doughnuts, iced brownies and oldies music.

Harris joined several hundred activists at The Tech Museum of Innovation, where partygoers danced to club music, ate finger food and drank at an open bar.

On a bench off the dance floor, Ted Vaill, a delegate from Malibu, recalled Sanchez’s mimicking of an Indian war cry at the Democratic convention last year in Anaheim, and said, “Loretta Sanchez is a dingbat.”

“She’s just not senatorial,” he said. “We need somebody who’s a heavy hitter, and Kamala’s a heavy hitter.”

On stage, Harris urged a cheering crowd to continue with their party but to vote for her the following day.

“Have fun tonight, but we’re working tomorrow,” she said. “So you can stay up as long as you want tonight, but wake up early in the morning. Take a couple aspirin if you need to, but wake up early in the morning.”

For weeks, Harris’ campaign had left little to chance: aides placed phone calls and mailed letters to delegates; they courted the activists at events around the state, and even dispatched representatives to their homes to ensure they showed up at the convention to vote.

On Saturday, the team of blue-clad staff members and volunteers was out early, whipping endorsement votes to ensure Harris surpassed the 60 percent threshold. After casting his ballot, Jasper Jackson of Compton said he sided with Harris after seeing her speak earlier this year at a union hall in Los Angeles.

“She’s done a lot of powerful things,” he said, complimenting her record as a prosecutor.

Sanchez’s campaign said in a statement she remains on track to finish in the top two and advance to a fall rematch against Harris, “where the electoral dynamics change in her favor.” Republicans running include former state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim.

Following one of many speeches over the weekend, Harris was surrounded by a ring of staffers and reporters, while delegates looked on.

One of them, Margaret Capriles of Mountain View, said to a fellow onlooker, “I think she’s going to be a great success. I’m excited about her.”

Capriles was holding her cellphone and waiting for a moment with the candidate.

“I’m going to see if I can get a little selfie with her,” she said.

U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris speaks with Democratic party activists about how to engage voters.

Venturing far outside her Orange County district in April 2015, Rep. Loretta Sanchez gave a passionate, campaign-style talk in San Francisco and took aim at fellow Democrat and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago