Capitol Alert

New crop of California Democrats courts national attention

Kamala Harris said that Democratic National Convention is about reaffirming commitment

California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris, speaking to California delegates in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 27, 2016, said that the Democratic National Convention is about reaffirming commitment.
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California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris, speaking to California delegates in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 27, 2016, said that the Democratic National Convention is about reaffirming commitment.

This week at the National Constitution Center, an interactive museum at the birthplace of American freedom, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla briefly interrupted DJ Aul Purpis as revelers paired wine with assorted mousse cups and mini cannoli.

Padilla, flanked by other elections chiefs assembled for the Democratic National Convention, discussed the significance of electing Hillary Clinton as president, offering that she would appoint Supreme Court justices committed to protecting voting privileges.

As he spoke, Cynthia Telles stood with other admirers from Padilla’s hometown of Los Angeles, where in 1999, he was elected to the City Council at the age of 26. As a state senator, he wrote the nation’s first statewide plastic bag ban, then won the elections post in 2014.

I see (Padilla) as having huge potential.

Cynthia Telles, professor at UCLA School of Medicine

“I see him as having huge potential,” Telles, a professor at UCLA School of Medicine, said over the din of the reception. “He is one of the rising stars, not only for the Hispanic community, but for everybody.”

As the party wound down, state Attorney General Kamala Harris decompressed in a downtown hotel lobby and chatted with CNN host Jake Tapper, while state Treasurer John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa mugged for selfies near the bar.

The national convention, where politicos and politicians gathered to nominate Clinton, has showcased a changing of the guard for California.

John Burton, chairman of the state Democratic Party, did not attend, nor did U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, retiring at year’s end, spent part of her Wednesday breakfast address to the state delegation giving an emotional farewell. Gov. Jerry Brown, in his fourth and final term, spoke on behalf of Clinton, but planned to leave town before she accepts the nomination late Thursday.

Padilla and a new class of Democrats are either running for higher office, or considering it while redirecting speculation about their ambitions. In the most immediate contest, Harris, 51, and Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, 56, are campaigning to succeed Boxer, who turns 76 this fall.

Harris’ schedule over the four days was jammed with appearances, including interviews with Tapper and PBS NewsHour, a criminal justice reform panel with political activist Van Jones and musician Alicia Keys and speeches to various state delegations. California and Florida were scheduled to honor Harris late Wednesday with a “Coast to Coast Bash” featuring the Grammy Award-winner Estelle.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York introduced Harris to his delegation one morning as “one of the people who I always had my eye on.” Harris left to a standing ovation from the crowd and praise from Assemblyman Walter Mosley of Brooklyn, a fellow Howard University alumnus.

“We are with her and understand the importance” of her contest, Mosley said of Harris, who was born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother. “What we need in the U.S. Senate is a fair representation of what our county looks like.”

For party activists and campaign donors, this is an opportunity to learn more about the men and women who are next in line.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC

Harris’ opponent, Sanchez, struggled to overcome a televised gaffe from last week, when she told a Spanish-language program that President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Harris was issued in part because they are both black. Sanchez was not invited to speak at events organized by the California Democratic Party, which endorsed Harris. Sanchez twice appeared on the main convention stage, though in nonspeaking roles and with other members.

Her campaign did not respond to requests about her whereabouts, and she avoided questions from a reporter outside a reception for Latino officials. “No,” Sanchez responded when asked if she had a moment to answer questions, “I do not.”

For those taking advantage, the events across Philadelphia gave a far higher profile for the next generation of California Democratic leaders than ever before, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“For party activists and campaign donors, this is an opportunity to learn more about the men and women who are next in line,” Schnur said, adding that the convention takes on a different meaning for politicians themselves. “Think of this as the first primary for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.”

The wide-open race for California governor in 2018 was on display in restaurants, lobbies and panels around town.

Chiang, 53, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 48, are the lone declared candidates to replace Brown, 78. Chiang focused his remarks to California Democrats on the urgency of the presidential race, suggesting the state’s diversity – from its Mexicans and Muslims to its women and Dreamers – is Republican Donald Trump’s “worst nightmare.”

Newsom kept a light schedule to prepare for his Wednesday speech on the main convention stage, but broke away to sit with labor icon Dolores Huerta and SEIU California President Laphonza Butler for a panel on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation. Later he threw a party with the artist Questlove at a 37th-floor restaurant, an event that featured platters of oysters and chilled crab legs and a panoramic view of the skyline.

In his brisk, 5-minute speech, Newsom took on the Republican ticket over gay rights and compared California’s improving financial picture to a “jet-propelled engine of job creation” and a “home court” for creativity around the world.

If Villaraigosa was rehearsing for his Thursday convention speech, he needed less time. He seemed to be everywhere, keeping a frantic schedule more befitting a hungry candidate than a recovering mayor.

“I have multiple things every day,” he noted. “From morning until night.”

Villaraigosa stopped to chit-chat about strategies to derail Trump. He discussed addressing homelessness, engaging new and immigrant voters and reforming education and immigration. He planned to watch Clinton accept the nomination from the suite of billionaire entertainment mogul Haim Saban. After passing up a Senate run, the 63-year-old said he’s come to a decision on the governor’s race, but won’t announce it until the fall.

“It is what it is,” Villaraigosa said, grinning, as he finished with Fox News Latino at a downtown reception for the Latino Leaders Network.

Others lining the state’s considerably deep bench also sought to capitalize on the attention. Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti raced between receptions and TV appearances.

Steyer, 59, stuck to topics of environmental justice and closing the wealth gap between rich and poor, deflecting questions about his electoral prospects. He spoke at and was a sponsor of the Latino Leaders Network luncheon and hosted his NextGen Climate breakfast.


De León, 49, used his speech to a national audience to hold up California as a progressive pacesetter for the nation, and to assail Trump.

Garcetti, 45, in various venues, hit on raising base wages and improving infrastructure, contrasting the work of cities with Washington’s intransigence.

The wide range of upcoming leaders, diverse and seasoned, is comforting to delegates like Uduak-Joe Ntuk of Long Beach, who circled a breakfast before Boxer gave her final goodbye to the delegation.

“It’s what we aspire to be in terms of keeping our progressive reputation,” he said.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago David Siders contributed to this report.

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