What Are All The Democrats Doing In Long Beach This Weekend? (A Political Convention Explainer)

Kamala Harris supporter Kevin Sabellico gives cardboard Kamala a lift during the California Democratic Party's Fall Nominating Convention November 15, 2019. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Heads up, LBC: Things are about to get wonky.

Around 5,000 California Democrats — Berners, Mayor Pete-stans, the Yang Gang, and members of the #KHive among them — are gathering at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center this weekend for the state party's Fall Endorsing Convention.

Presidential candidates are descending on Southern California for the occasion, holding rallies around Los Angeles and making their pitches in front of a collection of the most engaged of state Democratic volunteers, elected officials, and party leaders.

On Saturday afternoon, many of those contenders will take the stage at a candidate forum hosted by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. Univision has included eight familiar faces in its "Real America" program, scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.: Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer. It's not a debate, but a series of questions focused on issues pertinent to Latino voters from Ramos, Univision's Ilia Calderón and KMEX anchor León Krauze.

This is the party's second major gathering of the year. It follows a state convention in San Francisco back in June.

Democrats in California are unquestionably united around one theme: their desire to see President Donald Trump defeated in the 2020 election.

But the party's dominance in the state — they hold the Governor's office, a supermajority in both houses of the legislature in Sacramento, all statewide offices and recently flipped many of the remaining Republican-held California congressional seats during the 2018 midterms — does not mean major ideological differences are put to rest.

In June, California labor groups decried the party's support of the Green New Deal package put forth by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supported by local environmental activists, arguing it would jeopardize jobs. They called the protest a "Blue Collar Revolution."

And nowhere is the divide between moderate and progressive Democrats more obvious than the discussion around Medicare for All, a plan to eliminate private health insurance in favor of a public system championed by Sanders.

That process of party soul-searching has been playing out on the presidential debate stages and at state party gatherings. An auditorium full of California delegates booed former Maryland Rep. John Delaney in June when he told the crowd he supported universal healthcare, but that Medicare for All was "not good policy nor good politics."

In other words — the party is far from monolithic on policy and identity. There are many shades of blue in California.

And party conventions don't attract a casual audience. Attendees will mostly be California Democratic Party delegates who were either elected in races in their Assembly Districts or County Central Committees, or they snagged an appointment from a Democratic elected official. These delegates represent nearly 9 million registered Democrats in California.

Soli Alpert poses for photos during the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco, Sunday, June 2, 2019. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

DEMOCRATS, AFTER DARK

It's not all serious "Resistance" business, either. Democrats plan to get funky in Long Beach after their official events are over for the day. According to the convention agenda, evenings are packed with parties hosted by various elected officials, candidates and interest groups.

Ever want to attend a party with a Prop. 13 "Split-Roll" initiative theme? The California Teachers Association has you covered with its "Putting Schools and Communities First!" reception. (Proposition 13 is the 1978 voter initiative that caps property taxes statewide. The teachers group is backing a proposed ballot measure to roll back its tax assessment protections from commercial properties. The measure has long been considered too popular to challenge — the "Split-Roll" initiative is hugely controversial and likely headed for a knock-down-drag-out campaign before the vote in November 2020.)

Not to be outdone, the Sanders campaign is inviting delegates to a "Bernie 2020" shindig they're touting as "a night of fun with special guests, dancing, ice cream and libations."

The weekend is "essentially like a music festival for Democrats," said Alyssa Napuri, campaign manager for 48th District Congressman Harley Rouda's reelection effort. Rouda represents coastal Orange County areas, including Huntington Beach.

But networking opportunities have a serious purpose, Napuri said.

"A Democrat in Orange County is very different from a Democrat in San Francisco, or Bakersfield," Napuri said. "So it's good to get everyone together to talk about the issues that matter to them."

CAUCUS MEETINGS, AKA "THE REAL ACTION"

The California Democratic Party recognizes nearly twenty official statewide caucuses, or groups formed around demographics and policy areas like labor, disabilities, or seniors issues.

Presidential candidates will be dropping by these caucus meetings throughout the weekend, trying to woo delegates and attract endorsements from California leaders.

"The real action is in the caucuses," said Carlos Alcala, chair of the Chicano Latino Caucus of the California Democratic Party.

This year the Chicano Latino Caucus will be considering a resolution urging California to adopt a statewide ethnic studies curriculum, Alcala said. "The best way to address bigotry and discrimination is education," he added. "Teach people to respect each other."

Karen Suarez holds up a sign as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco on June 1, 2019. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leads the CDP's powerful Women's Caucus, meeting on Saturday morning. The agenda will be geared toward "Women's Economic Equity — closing the wage gaps among racial, LGBTQ, and disability sectors," Pelosi said. The group plans to distribute paper fans printed with the slogan #ShowUsTheMoney.

This is also the first year childcare and a lactation room are available onsite for convention-goers. The Women's Caucus will introduce a platform amendment to promote access to child care, Pelosi said.

The fallout from California's devastating wildfire seasons and the role of power utility PG&E will be the primary focus at the Environmental Caucus gathering.

"I'm a Woolsey Fire survivor — this is personal for me," said caucus chair R. L. Miller, who's also the policy director for the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote. The caucus plans to discuss the possible breakup of PG&E — and a proposal to turn the investor-owned utility into a public agency.

"Wildfires are a symptom of climate change, and I see the PG&E issue as the first test of climate adaptation that the nation is facing," Miller said. "And so far we're not handling it very well. We're not keeping in mind the principle of 'polluter pays.'"

Miller said influential policy movements can be born out of caucus resolutions. The push to have Democratic politicians sign a pledge to forgo donations from the fossil fuel industry, for example, was popularized at CDP Environmental Caucus meetings starting in 2017.

The LGBT Caucus is setting its sights on increasing LGBTQ representation at every level of government, from local to statewide elected offices, said northern California co-chair Tiffany Woods.

That means, "supporting LGBT candidates, gaining more LGBT identified seats across the state, and supporting more LGBT clubs," she said.

Woods is the first trans woman elected to a leadership role in the caucus.

"I want us to be leaders in California and be the vanguard against the Trump administration," she said. "That means working with the legislature and strengthening LGBTQ protections."

The convention schedule has a full list of caucus meetings.

GEARING UP FOR ENDORSEMENT BATTLES

Nominating conventions are rare opportunities for political parties to coordinate their disparate interest groups and rally behind candidates or pieces of legislation, said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at UC San Diego. "Theoretically, a convention gets the whole team onboard and moving in the same direction."

The party will not officially pick a candidate for the presidential primary, but delegates will be voting to endorse a slate of Democratic hopefuls in down-ballot races for Assembly, State Senate, and Congressional seats.

Can a party nod make the difference in a close race? According to Kousser, yes.

In a 2012 study, his team found that a California Democratic Party endorsement gave candidates around a 10% boost on average in their vote totals, enough to tip the balance of a tight contest.

That benefit came from attracting more registered Democrats, rather than persuading Republicans or No Party Preference voters, Kousser said.

Many 2020 Democratic candidates have already been given an early seal of approval by the state party during their Pre-Endorsement Conference held at the beginning of October. Those candidates (mostly incumbents) are all but guaranteed to have their endorsements confirmed by a vote of the General Assembly on Sunday.

Others will have to fight for the party's backing at the convention.

Congressman Ami Bera, who represents a suburban Sacramento district, failed to win over enough local delegates in October to secure a spot on Sunday's endorsement consent calendar. He'll have to make his case again at the convention — the only incumbent Democratic congressman in California to have to do so.

An endorsement is important because it will allow candidates to appear on Democratic Party-funded slate mailers and let the party assist in fundraising. Still, it's far from a sure ticket out of the primary to the general election.

Take the 2018 congressional race in Orange County's 45th District. Candidate David Min won a ferocious endorsement battle against fellow UC Irvine professor Katie Porter and two other contenders at the nominating convention. But it was Porter, not Min, who wound up besting the Democratic field in the primary — and ultimately defeated incumbent GOP Rep. Mimi Walters to flip the seat.

"Because the stakes are so high with these endorsements, you see incredibly brutal and energetic fights at conventions," Kousser said. "But while the party endorsement makes a big difference, it doesn't seal the deal."

This time around, Min is running to represent a large swath of Orange County, including Irvine, as the 37th District State Senator. Again, he faces a strong rival for the Democratic endorsement — Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley. Both Democrats want the chance to unseat incumbent Republican Senator John Moorlach in November 2020.

ARE FRONTRUNNERS DITCHING CALIFORNIA?

Notably absent from the weekend's events: Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden's campaign cited scheduling conflicts — he held a rally at Los Angeles Trade Technical College on Thursday instead.

California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks made it clear he wasn't happy about two of the top-polling candidates skipping out on the party's marquee event — on Facebook last week, he blasted both for what he called a "misguided" decision and a "snub" for the state's Democrats and Latino voters everywhere.

Citing unnamed sources, POLITICO reported the Biden campaign was avoiding the convention because of the potential for sharp questions from Univision's Ramos — especially on the issue of immigration and deportations under the Obama administration. The outlet also quoted Biden donors and advisors who worried the former VP would be booed (as Delaney was) by a far-left convention audience largely more progressive than his base of support.

"Progressives are saddened that Vice President Biden doesn't respect us enough to speak to us in person," said Amar Shergill, chairman of the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus.

Felix Hernandez is a volunteer for the Elizabeth Warren Campaign. He joined other supporters at the Democratic Party of California's Fall Nominating Convention November 15, 2019. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Unlike Biden, Elizabeth Warren has attended a number of party events in recent years, including the June convention, Shergill pointed out. "Those relationships are important if you want to build the kind of momentum we need."

Shergill said California progressives want to see candidates commit to policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and criminal justice reform, which have become a litmus test for many on the left. He has personally endorsed Bernie Sanders in the presidential race.

#METOO ALLEGATIONS STILL LOOM LARGE

California Democrats are also trying to put a year of controversy behind them. The Party's Chairman, Eric Bauman, resigned last November facing accusations of sexual harassment. There are still lawsuits pending over his alleged misconduct.

Longtime labor leader Rusty Hicks was elected as the new chair of the state party in June.

Several party caucuses will vote this weekend on a new code of conduct focused on preventing harassment and protecting victims who come forward from retaliation. It's a framework the Women's Caucus helped implement, Christine Pelosi said.

"We need strong communication and integrity," she added. "We still have predators prowling politics and we need to protect our people — especially the youth who answer a call to serve and want to participate without harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse."