Presidential Hopefuls Met Up With California Democrats This Weekend In Long Beach. Our Key Takeaways

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) waves during a presidential forum at the California Democratic Party's convention in Long Beach on Saturday (Chris Carlson/AP)

Sure, Iowa and New Hampshire are getting most of the attention these days. But nobody puts California in a corner — particularly now that the solidly blue state moved up its primary to March.

And that means, for a brief spell at least, Southern California turned heads in the political universe with many — but not all — of the top Democratic presidential hopefuls in town. This weekend they showered attention on Democratic activists in Long Beach and courted Latino voters around Los Angeles.

WHERE THEY WERE

Bernie Sanders held a rally at an El Sereno high school featuring the funk band Ozomatli. Drag queens were the warm-up act for Kamala Harris' fiery speech at a bar a few blocks from the Long Beach Convention Center.

And the marquee event: Eight of the top-polling Democrats running to be president sat for interviews in front of a packed arena at the California Democratic Party's (CDP) fall convention.

[Former Vice President Joe Biden was in town Thursday for a rally, but did not attend the convention. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was campaigning in Iowa this weekend.]

Sanders, Harris, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer appeared on a Univision forum on Saturday before an audience of California delegates and Democratic volunteers — a group heavy on activists and far more politically engaged than the average voter.

And five of those candidates (Castro, Steyer, Buttigieg, Harris and Sanders) appeared onstage again on Sunday to discuss Latino issues at Cal State L.A. The program was sponsored by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation and the Californians for Humane Immigrant Rights Leadership (CHIRLA) Action Fund and broadcast by ABC7.

These were not debates — instead, television anchors, academics and regular people asked each candidate about their positions on key issues.

THE STAKES

Cal State L.A. Students Hope Hua (left) and Natalie Deo attended a presidential candidate forum at Cal State L.A. on November 17, 2019. (Libby Denkmann/KPCC)

California has about 495 voting Democratic primary delegates — by far the most of any state. Its primary is officially March 3, but mail-in-ballots go out Feb. 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses.

Democrats who hope to win the White House acknowledge they need to mobilize a diverse base of support, including Latinx voters, who are historically underrepresented at the polls.

During opening remarks at the Cal State L.A. forum, State Senator María Elena Durazo spoke about the growing importance of Latinx voters and their potential impact on 2020.

More Latinos live in Los Angeles than the entire population of the state of Iowa, she noted. "Ignoring us? That's a dangerous thing to do," Durazo said. Her district includes East Hollywood, parts of downtown, Los Feliz Boyle Heights, and East L.A.

Many students in the audience at Cal State felt it was early in the campaign to commit to a candidate, but they were watching closely.

"I was really happy to see Kamala's fierceness, and Senator Sanders' perseverance," said Natalie Deo, an electrical engineering student at Cal State L.A. She'll be a first-time voter in 2020.

A Type-1 diabetic, Deo said insulin affordability tops her agenda for the most important issue for a president to tackle.

Healthcare is likewise a big deal to Hope Hua, who's studying biochemistry. She's also looking for a candidate who will push through immigration reform.

"My parents are both immigrants from China. My community and a lot of my friends are immigrants from China, Mexico — a wide variety," she said.

But the conversation didn't help narrow things down for these friends.

"All of the candidates had similar views," Hua said. "There's not that many different ideas going around. Everyone will protect DACA recipients and reform ICE, for example."

Neither student had come to a conclusion on the one major policy debate that's been dominating candidate skirmishes since the start of the campaign: the future of healthcare. Would a single-payer Medicare for All system, as progressives like Sanders and Warren advocate, work better? What about creating a public option for health coverage, to allow Americans to choose the coverage they want — something moderates like Joe Biden promote?

"It's important to do research. I haven't looked into all of the options," Hua said.

DEMOCRATS ON THE ISSUES

Immigration

The weekend events took place just a few days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether President Trump can end a program protecting around 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. Democratic candidates in town for the convention vowed to restore safeguards for DACA recipients — and extend assurances to their parents, too.

As he did with Joe Biden in the September Democratic debate, Univision's Jorge Ramos pressed both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders to reckon with President Obama's record of deporting millions of immigrants.

Harris called Obama one of the greatest presidents in history. But she said it was wrong to deport "non-criminals," and she emphasized her record as California Attorney General, when she told law enforcement that ICE detainers were not mandatory.

Sanders was blunt when asked if it was a mistake for the Obama Administration to deport 3 million people.

"Yes," he said, promising to issue executive orders "on day one" to reestablish protections for DACA recipients and their parents.

Gun Violence

In the wake of the Saugus High School shooting last week in Santa Clarita, interviewers pushed candidates for specifics on their positions on gun control. Nearly everyone favored tighter background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

The conversation got off to an emotional start when Kamala Harris fielded a question from a Saugus High school student Yvette Mojica, who spoke of her terror during the attack on Thursday. Mojica asked what Harris would do to keep students safe from the fear of being shot.

The California senator said she favors comprehensive background checks and a ban on the importation of assault-style weapons. Harris vowed to take executive action as president to tighten restrictions on gun purchases if Congress does not act within her first 100 days in office.

Senator Cory Booker, who represents New Jersey, said the issue of gun violence is personal to him, because he's known young men in his neighborhood who were shot and killed.

"I am tired of seeing the number one cause of death for black and brown children in this country is murder, Booker said. "And under my leadership it will stop. I will bring a fight to the corporate gun lobby and the NRA like they have never seen before."

Healthcare

California Democratic conventions attract a progressive wing of the party. Many delegates to the June convention booed candidates like John Delaney who promoted more incremental changes to the healthcare system and criticized Medicare for All, which would end private health insurance in favor of a government-run system.

The risk of an unfriendly crowd is reportedly why Joe Biden decided to skip the party's Long Beach events in favor of his own rally in Los Angeles on Thursday. (Elizabeth Warren chose to continue stumping in Iowa instead of making the West Coast trek, but her more progressive pedigree and frequent appearances at previous California Democratic events seemed to give her a pass with activists — this time.)

But South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg waded into the deep end on Saturday, explaining his reasoning for supporting an initial public option instead of a more progressive single-payer plan.

"If this is the best plan for everybody, then everybody will choose it and then it will become the single payer," Buttigieg said, adding some Americans, like union members, may want to keep their existing health coverage. "I'm not going to command them to abandon that plan."

'TÍO BERNIE' IS BIG HERE

Bernie Sanders supporter David Barlavi carries a crochet Bernie Sanders doll at the California Democratic Party's Fall Nominating Convention in Long Beach. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The delegates in Long Beach saved their loudest cheers for Bernie Sanders when he sat down with Univision's Ramos. Bernie buttons, stickers t-shirts and signs were ubiquitous on the convention floor and in caucus meeting rooms.

Sanders has raised more money from Latinos than any of his rivals, according to an analysis of data from ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising app. During his televised interview, Ramos pointed out the Senator's nickname with Spanish-speaking fans: "Tío Bernie."

The Sanders team has the largest California operation of any campaign, and opened its latest field office in San Francisco on Thursday. Sanders has 40 full-time staffers in five offices across the state, including Riverside, San Diego, and L.A.

"We intend to win California and we are investing big in the state," said Jane Kim, California Political Director for Bernie 2020.

In some ways, their efforts are a continuation of the 2016 campaign. Sanders delegates have been working their way into the Democratic Party machine since he narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton here in the last primary.

"Our supporters have been running as local candidates and to be delegates to the state party, Kim said,"And they've been winning."

In 2017, California moved primary voting up to March 3rd, three months earlier than it was held in 2016. If campaign investment is any measure, the bid for relevancy may have worked. Harris and Warren have also opened multiple field offices in the state.

On Saturday night, Sanders supporters took over a convention meeting room for a dance party featuring a DJ and ice cream bars.

"Bernie's an amazing public speaker. He stuns everyone." David Barlavi, an attorney and local school board member said.

"Immigrants are not the problem. Corporate corruption is the problem," said Barlavi. He was toting a crocheted "Lil Bernie" doll with trademark square framed glasses and fuzzy hair.

Barlavi predicted Bernie would win several of the early states and "hopefully take California too."

HERO'S WELCOME FOR ADAM SCHIFF

Rep. Adam Schiff appears on stage to cheers at theCalifornia Democratic Party's fall convention. (Libby Denkmann / LAist)

California Democrats went wild for the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who was admittedly exhausted, fresh off a week of pivotal impeachment hearings.

Schiff delivered a barn-burner of a speech, urging his party to organize and turn out the vote in 2020 to defeat President Trump.

"We will send that charleton in the White House back to the golden throne he came from," Schiff said. "And you know why? We vote."

NEW FACES ARE PLAYING CATCH UP

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick speaks to the media in Long Beach days after announcing his run for the White House. (Libby Denkmann / LAist)

Some politicians have recently decided the large field of Democratic candidates isn't enough — new hopefuls like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are jumping in. (Bloomberg hasn't officially announced, but he has filed paperwork to be on the ballot in Alabama.)

Patrick worked the floor at the convention in Long Beach, one of his first major events after announcing his candidacy on Thursday. He also spent time with reporters backstage.

"There are a lot of really great people in the race. What I bring is a range of experience in just about every sector of the economy and in government," Patrick said. "And also the experience of having grown up in poverty. Having prospered because of an American dream that is slipping away."

Patrick added he "brings people together." Some political observers see him as a new moderate alternative to Biden.

But in California, delegates didn't seem so sure they needed another option. His Saturday morning speech got a lukewarm reception in the hall.

ONE CANDIDATE IS ATTACKING THE PROCESS

Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro continued to criticize the primary calendar which weights success in the early voting states — Iowa and New Hampshire — over more diverse states later in the race.

"I have to give a lot of credit to the people of Iowa and New Hampshire. Everyone has been wonderful," Castro said in the spin room after the Univision forum. "At the same time we can't talk about championing diversity in our party as Democrats, and go after Republicans as we should when they try and suppress minority votes, but then start our nominating process in these two states that hardly have any people of color. That doesn't make any sense."

Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race, is registering around 1% support in national polls, and he has been unable to qualify for the Nov. 20 debate in Atlanta. He called for reordering the primary in an interview on MSNBC.

UNITING TO DEFEAT TRUMP

There were plenty of Democratic party fault lines visible between the festively decorated booths touting candidates and liberal political organizations.

Case in point: labor unions passed out "blue collar smoothies" to convention attendees and displayed signs asking, "Are our jobs too dirty for you?"

The progressive set of environmental and economic policies in "The Green New Deal" has put many unions' backs up — they say shutting down manufacturing and energy production in favor of greener options will decimate jobs.

But overall, several veteran convention-goers said Democratic infighting seemed more subdued than usual. There could be one big reason for that — the spectre of Donald Trump and the 2020 election looms large. Members of the party differ widely on which candidate and policies will get them to the finish line, but delegates left no doubt as to their ultimate goal: winning the presidential election and booting Trump from the Oval Office.

SCENES FROM THE WEEKEND

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