Capitol Alert

Thousands of California Democrats vie to be presidential delegates

A cardboard cutout of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets people at the Clinton caucus at McKinley Park’s Clunie Community Center on Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Sacramento, where people voted for delegates for the national convention.
A cardboard cutout of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets people at the Clinton caucus at McKinley Park’s Clunie Community Center on Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Sacramento, where people voted for delegates for the national convention.

For the past two weeks, 26-year-old Nelson Leiva walked door to door in Antelope and other Sacramento neighborhoods. He was campaigning for Bernie Sanders – and himself.

An administrative worker for the state, Leiva was among nearly 100 Californians from the Sacramento-based 6th Congressional District who vied Sunday to attend the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in late July. The clean-cut Sacramento native asked registered voters to attend a caucus and elect him as one of six district delegates for the convention.

Delegate caucuses often go unnoticed, and in a city such as Sacramento, many of the candidates are political junkies, or work in or around the Capitol. But the rise of Sanders and Donald Trump in contentious presidential primary races has attracted new faces and more scrutiny to the delegate system in both parties.

“I’ve never done anything like this before, as far as being this involved,” Leiva said before the caucus. “A big movement has started for Bernie Sanders, and I’ve been swept up in it.”

About 4,600 registered Democrats ran for district delegates in the state’s 53 congressional districts Sunday, compared with 3,400 in 2008, the last time the party had primary election choices – Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

“It reflects the competitive race on the Democratic side,” said Michael Soller, communications director for the California Democratic Party. “People are fired up by our candidates and ready to beat the Republicans.”

Soller added that California’s relevance in the primary race this year and Democrats’ strong feelings about Republican candidates are also inspiring more people to become involved.

District-level delegates account for 317 of the total 546 delegates California will send to Philadelphia.

If there’s a time for me to become more directly involved, this is it. It’s rare for California to actually matter.

Steve Soto, candidate to represent Congressional District 6 for Hillary Clinton

The presidential candidates held separate caucuses – Clinton delegate wannabes in McKinley Park’s Clunie Community Center and Sanders candidates in Curtis Park at Sierra 2 Center. The June 7 primary will determine the share of the six delegates awarded to Clinton and Sanders.

A long line of voters snaked around the clubhouse at the Clinton caucus. Candidates moved through the crowd performing the political equivalent of a business elevator pitch. Steve Soto, an executive for a health care company, appealed to voters with the help of his dog Charlie, a 5-year-old poodle mix wearing a T-shirt bearing Soto’s name.

“If there’s a time for me to become more directly involved, this is it,” said Soto, who was running to be a delegate for the first time. “It’s rare for California to actually matter.” Ultimately, his bid failed, according to unofficial results.

At the Sanders caucus, each candidate was allowed a 30-second soapbox speech.

A nervous Leiva promised voters he would remain a Bernie man “until the very end,” garnering cheers from the crowd.

Many of the voters came out to support a friend or family member. Some were die-hard Sanders supporters eager to participate.

“I’m going for somebody who will represent Bernie the best way possible and bring more people in,” said 29-year-old Danielle Kister as she listened to speeches. “He has the moral character that other politicians lack.”

4,600Registered Democrats who ran as district delegates in California on Sunday, compared with 3,400 in 2008

The system to determine the remaining delegates, high-ranking politicians in particular, has drawn criticism in the primary race.

The campaigns hand-pick 105 at-large delegates and 53 party leader and elected official delegates. Similar to the district delegates, these representatives pledge themselves to one candidate.

The party awards superdelegate positions to the state’s most powerful politicians, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Jerry Brown. These 71 representatives, which include members of the California Democratic National Committee, can vote for any candidate at the convention.

Sanders supporters have complained that most of the superdelegates are pledged to Clinton, a former first lady, secretary of state and U.S. senator with deep political ties.

The Sanders campaign argues that superdelegates should vote in accordance with the people in their state. For example, if Sanders wins the popular vote in California, he should win the superdelegates, too.

On the Republican side, Trump has complained the GOP delegate rules in some states are “rigged” to benefit party leaders trying to undermine his candidacy.

The delegate process is drawing more attention this year because of the possibility that the convention might be contested, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“In the past 40 years, national political conventions have not been much more than elaborate rallies,” Pitney said. “But this year the identities of the delegates may actually matter.”

Larry Glover-Meade, an assistant program director for the federal government, ran as a Sanders delegate in District 6. The 37-year-old said he has always been interested in politics but was drawn to Sanders’ strong backing of same-sex marriage and gay rights.

Glover-Meade said he didn’t understand “the huge machine that helps produce candidates” until he became involved this year. He said the delegate system is “archaic.”

“For someone from the outside who hasn’t done this, it feels like it’s a rigged game,” said Glover-Meade, whose bid ultimately failed.

Pitney pointed out that eight years ago, Clinton backers felt the same way when superdelegates favored Obama.

“She was unhappy, but superdelegates are supposed to be free agents,” Pitney said. “2016 is Hillary’s revenge.”

In the past 40 years, national political conventions have not been much more than elaborate rallies. But this year the identities of the delegates may actually matter.

Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College

While many of Sanders’ district delegates are running for the first time, some local Clinton hopefuls are more seasoned.

Ann Richardson, a 62-year-old attorney for the state, ran for a delegate seat for Clinton in 2008. She wasn’t quite as serious then, she said, and campaigned with a slate of three other potential delegates as a way to pool votes this time around.

“She’s got a breadth of experience that no other candidate has had,” Richardson said. “And she’s a woman. I’m 62 years old. I want to see a woman in the presidency. If I’m completely honest with you, that’s important to me. I’m going to play the woman card.”

Richardson’s running mates include Karen Skelton, Steve Maviglio and Elaine Knight, political consultants and Capitol insiders. The group set up a table at farmers markets to talk about why they support Clinton. They rallied friends and family to vote Sunday.

“I was teasing my family and said that if you guys don’t come out and vote for me, I won’t cook another family meal,” Richardson said. “Then I realized that probably wasn’t an incentive to get them to come out.”

A Facebook page promoting Richardson’s slate features a picture of the group standing in front of the state Capitol, donning different shades of blue. By nightfall Sunday, members of Richardson’s slate were celebrating their wins on Facebook.

The party estimates the cost of attending the convention will range from $3,600 to $4,100 per delegate, and delegates pay their own way.

Leiva, who graduated from California State University, Sacramento, three years ago, was not deterred. He was prepared to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the GoFundMe website if he won. But according to unofficial results Sunday night, he fell short at the Sanders caucus.

“It is a little disappointing, but I’m still happy I got to get out there and tell people about Bernie Sanders,” he said. “It was worth it.”

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna