If last month’s gathering of California Republicans had the feel of a postmortem, this weekend’s California Democratic convention seemed much more like a three-day end-zone dance. Speaker after speaker took to the podium to tout the party’s 2012 victories: supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate, winning six House seats from Republicans, and the passage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 tax measure.

California's Democrats gathered in Sacramento this weekend
California’s Democrats gathered in Sacramento this weekend

With Brown in China on a trade mission and neither of California’s U.S. senators speaking at the convention, the weekend gave up-and-coming Democrats a chance to step into the spotlight. In that sense, the weekend offered a preview of what a post-Brown gubernatorial primary might look like.

The convention was highlighted by passionate speeches from two Democrats with clear ambition for higher office: Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Newsom began his speech by joking about the six-day old “Newsom Administration” (he’s serving as acting governor with Brown abroad). Then he launched into a call for issues like the legalization of marijuana and repeal of the death penalty.  “It’s not a deterrent. It’s not fool-proof. It is racially biased,” he said of capital punishment. “It costs more. And there’s no way to reverse a mistake when you put a wrongly accused person to death.” Newsom has clashed publicly with Brown, and at times he sounded more like an opposition candidate than a member of a governing administration. He burst the Democrats’ feel-good bubble by calling for action to address the state’s economic problems. “We not only have the highest homeless rate in America, but the highest poverty rate. Think about this: California has three of the top five impoverished metro areas in the entire nation: Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield. … 1.8 million Californians actively seeking employment that cannot find work. Statewide unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. The nation’s highest.”

How to Use a Supermajority

Newsom wasn’t the only speaker calling for Democrats to use their majority to push for legislation on big, liberal issues. Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who bankrolled last year’s successful Proposition 39 campaign, wants Democrats to use their two-thirds majority to pass an oil-severance tax. The issue is timely, he said, because of an anticipated rush to exploit Central California’s Monterey shale formation.  “There has been a shale oil find in the state of California that is the biggest in the United States. It’s 15 billion barrels. Now, I have no idea if that can be safely or profitably extracted. But I do know we better put in the tax before we find out.”

But for all the bold initiatives that the party’s stars called for from the stage, many delegates seemed to agree with Gov. Brown’s advice to use caution in using the power of the supermajority, saying they want to let the economy continue to improve, and avoid pushing too many big, expensive ideas at once. “I feel like if we kind of go crazy and get all kinds of liberal policies going, then we’ll absolutely lose the majority,” said Candy Easter of Kern County. Bryan Ladlow with the Napa County Young Democrats said he felt the same way. “Of course progressive issues are important,” he said. “But I want to make sure we don’t go too far to the left and alienate the people in the middle who helped us get where we are right now.”

Not everyone wants Democrats to keep the brakes on, of course. Barbara Wilson of Los Angeles County urged legislators to hike corporate and drilling taxes and to fund social programs. “Now that we have a two-thirds majority let’s get it done,” she said. “Let’s get that money.”

“The Waiting Is Over”

While Newsom focused on state issues during his speech, Attorney General Kamala Harris talked about national topics. Addressing the United States Supreme Court’s impending decision on same-sex marriage, Harris said Proposition 8 supporters “want to tell the 50,000 California children of loving same-sex couples that their families don’t count as real families. The message to these families … if they want their fundamental rights, they’re going to have to wait.”

“But we know justice cannot be served cold,” Harris continued. “We know each day is not equal. Dr. King said it best: the word ‘wait’ rings with a piercing familiarity for those who have long been denied their fundamental rights. We know ‘wait’ is just a substitute for ‘never.’ ”

And sticking with a theme that “the waiting is over,” Harris made her way through a list of high-profile national issues. “We need to tell Congress this year—this month—it’s time. It’s time for comprehensive immigration reform. It’s time to stand with the people of Newtown for common-sense gun laws. Democrats, it’s time to stand up for workers and collective-bargaining rights.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters in Sacramento
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters in Sacramento

But while California Democrats are in a commanding position in Sacramento, it’s a different story in Washington. No one knows that better than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She fielded questions about immigration and gun legislation during the Sacramento convention.

Pelosi told reporters she’s hoping lawmakers can pass an immigration law by the time Congress adjourns for August recess. She hedged on the chances for strong gun control measures like a ban on assault weapons sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“Can we ban it? Are the votes there to do so?” Pelosi asked. “Well, Senator Feinstein is a very determined person. Sentiment is everything. If the public wants this, we will get to this place.”

California Democrats Flex Muscles–and Talk About How to Use Them 15 April,2013Scott Detrow


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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