Ice cream and loathing: At the California Democratic Party Convention, it’s all about beating each other
Moderate insiders and progressive base have trouble finding common ground to defeat a flailing Trump
California Democrats have four words for their fiery, insurgent newcomers:
Shut the fuck up.
It’s Friday, May 19. I’m nursing a beer on a balcony at the 2017 California Democratic Convention in Sacramento, considering the crowd below—an amalgam of nerd-ass wonks, pink-clad Berniecrats, smarmy electeds and granola activists—and reflecting on the scene a few minutes before.
To kick off the weekend’s events, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg was slated to deliver a few words to newly arrived state delegates and politicos. But a gaggle of young protesters interrupted proceedings with chants for single-payer health care, leading grizzled outgoing party leader John Burton to nab the microphone from Steinberg and shout, “Hey, shut the fuck up or go outside.”
He would offer the same crass words to nurses on Sunday.
Boasting a supermajority in both the Assembly and Senate, as well as control of statewide federal elected offices, California Democrats have exhausted their Republican adversaries. By and large, the party is posturing against a Trump-and-Republican-run Washington, D.C., but the battles back home aren’t quite over. This weekend they’ll face an army of purist, populist Berniecrats crashing the party and working to wrest control from within.
“This guy press?” a man behind me asks.
Two middle-aged delegates flank me and start to discuss the success of their party, expressing mock outrage at the audacity of the convention’s belligerent newcomers.
I ask if they’re really so surprised. Democrats are now the central power-brokers of state politics. Of course someone was going to fill the void to their left.
We discuss the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and touch on why folks my age and younger refuse to join political parties. Last March, the California secretary of state reported that “no party affiliation” voters were up 400,000, while Democrats and Republicans saw registration drop by almost 300,000.
The delegates tell me they support Eric Bauman for chair. I already knew that.
This war for the soul of the party is encapsulated by the weekend’s race to replace Burton at the helm of state Democrats. When Burton announced his retirement, folks saw the position going to Bauman, a Los Angeles insider and Burton’s vice chair of eight years. But then Kimberly Ellis, a Bay Area activist and head of Emerge California—which works to get women and people of color into elected office—threw her hat in the ring.
Suddenly, Ellis had the support of California nurses and a sea of former Bernie supporters who scored big wins in state delegate elections months before.
The race was on.
Everyone in state politics is a coward.
By that I mean everyone has a lot of big, bad opinions to share with journalists, but they refuse to go on record. So it’s refreshing when I meet 20-year-old Antonio Rafael Robles at the Progressive Democrat party on the seventh floor of the Citizen Hotel.
Inspired by Sanders’ run for the presidency, Robles decided last year to run for the school board of Fallbrook Union High School District in a conservative, rural town off I-15 between San Diego and Los Angeles. He lost, but he’s already gearing up for 2018. Robles and I are joined by a group of young women with backpacks and pink Ellis T-shirts. The conversation turns to Burton’s F-bomb.
“You don’t want to end your legacy like that,” Robles will later say.
Listening to insurgent Ellisistas and insider Baumanites talk of each other, one starts to hear the same accusations. “They” are responsible for Trump. “They” refuse to listen. As obstinate and disruptive as the young leftists can be, the beltway business Democrats rival them with dismissive tones and demands for silence. It’s the same impasse the party is seeing on a national level between deeply entrenched supporters of Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
On Saturday, the Democrats hold a panel on reaching young folks called “#EngageBeyond: How Gen-X and Millennials are reimagining civic & political party participation.”
It’s an immersive discussion with folks like Brittany Packnett of Black Lives Matter fame and upstart Los Angeles operative Kenya Parham. But since the weekend was scheduled by octogenarian Burton, the panel starts at 8 a.m. It’s also competing with Nancy Pelosi’s speech in the raucous women’s caucus next door. One audience member notes on Twitter that there are very few millennials in attendance. And they’re right. There are more baby boomers in this sparse crowd than there are folks under 30.
As Saturday’s round of delegate voting and candidate speeches kicks off, I run into one of the middle-aged delegates from the night before.
“You gotta write something that brings the party together,” he says.
Those words will ricochet through my cranium as I take in the absurdity of the rest of the weekend. Glow sticks shilling for charter schools at a Cyprus Hill concert. Insider Democrats arguing against divestments from Big Oil. A future party leader with ties to Big Pharma in Bauman.
In a convention of wonks, weirdos and political plebes, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and documentarian wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom look like they just fell out of a ballroom.
A 2018 gubernatorial hopeful, Newsom has spent much of his career on the progressive side of the issues and the right side of California history. He’s good-looking. Folks who talk with him say he really listens. But he sticks out at a convention full of human beings.
Newsom scoops ice cream for convention attendees at an outdoor party he’s thrown at the intersection of K and 13th streets. With his pristine style and attire, he reminds me of the Sesame Street sketch in which Weimaraners in human clothing use human hands to knead dough at a kitchen table. It looks real, but something’s off.
Newsom’s biggest rival in the governor’s race is John Chiang, a respected man who has held such nerd offices as state controller and treasurer. Newsom’s speech Saturday morning brought the house down. Chiang, meanwhile, speaks to a cavernous hall during lunch as delegates wander away, drawn outside by Newsom’s sweet, sweet ice cream.
Saturday evening, Newsom hosts a concert on the street outside the state Capitol. The rapper Common delivers a brilliant, emotional performance. In the Sheraton Grand’s basement ballroom, Cypress Hill lead man B-Real fires up a blunt and a wild crowd of young Democrats with glow sticks advertising the California Charter Schools Association—a special interest embraced by business Democrats and reviled by the progressive bloc—follows suit. Down at Simon’s Bar & Cafe on N and 16th streets, Bauman hosts a karaoke party.
Bauman has won as chair, squeaking by Ellis at a margin of 62 delegate votes. Ellis will request a recount and review. I wonder what this portends for party unity.
Bauman’s longtime friend and former caucus director for the California Assembly Democrats, Charu Khopkar, will later tell me he’s not worried. Even after outgoing chair Burton cussed out Ellis supporters Sunday, and they marched in protest to Cesar Chavez Plaza, he sees party unity ahead. “I know Eric well enough to say he will listen to them, he will work with them and changes will be coming,” Khopkar says.
But wounds are still fresh. And if leaders want to establish themselves as a party for the people, they’re off to a rough start.
Bauman and company briefly took in communications operative Steve Maviglio to help during the Bauman-Ellis ballot review this week, irking numerous Ellis-friendly unions. Maviglio is representing management at AT&T as the telecommunications behemoth battles the Communication Workers of America—a major union that launched a strike the day the convention began. When union leadership approached the party about it, Maviglio was released.
Maviglio says Bauman asked his help to field press inquiries at party headquarters during the Ellis-requested recount, but that the gig was always temporary, ending after three days.
“I’m done there,” he says.
A few days later, on May 24, Consumer Watchdog asks the California Fair Political Practices Commission to reopen an investigation into whether top Democratic aides profited from their bosses’ punting a fracking ban in 2015. Those aides are Nancy McFadden, who still works in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, and Maviglio, who used to be the chief communications deputy for John Perez, then the Assembly speaker.
The public interest nonprofit claims that McFadden and Maviglio “owned up to $1 million in the same oil and gas company that benefited financially when they used their posts to blunt tough regulation of fracking in the Legislature.”
It’s the kind of smoke that drives the progressive base nuts, even as the FPPC took no action on the request.
On Tuesday, Bauman announced that the party had officially selected a new interim firm to handle its media communications.
One possible bright spot for mainstay and insurgent Democrats alike is 25-year-old Jenny Bach, the newly elected party secretary. She kind of straddles the conflict between the quibbling factions. She’s a young woman whose parents immigrated from Vietnam. The Wellstone Progressive Democrats of Sacramento endorsed her on the same bill with Ellis, but party reps of all stripes have rallied around Bach—though she’s still trying to figure out what they mean when they mention her as a unifier.
“I think all of us on the board want to unify,” says Bach.
Easier for some than others.