SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Thousands of California Democratic activists gathered Friday for a three-day convention as they look to lift the party’s national prospects after last year’s stunning loss to President Donald Trump.
In a state where Democrats are itching to lead the liberal resistance to Trump and the Republican Congress, the party’s activists find themselves singularly united behind the goal of stunting the GOP. The annual meeting caps a dizzying week that saw the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into possible Russian coordination with the Trump campaign.
But the Democrats are also a party divided, still nursing deep divisions between insurgent supporters of Bernie Sanders and the party’s establishment wing.
That schism is at the heart of the hard-fought race for party chair, which will be decided Saturday night. A contingent of Sanders loyalists won a bloc of convention seats earlier this year and is clamoring for changes in party leadership.
Democrats have a tight grip on all of California’s levers of power with control of all statewide offices, supermajorities in both legislative chambers and an overwhelming majority if the congressional delegation.
“We’ve had tremendous success in the electoral sense. We haven’t always used our success to advance progressive ideas,” said Naida Tushnet, a 75-year-old retired educator from Long Beach who said she’s a longtime party volunteer but attending her first state convention.
Tushnet is baffled that such a strong and proudly Democratic state has not adopted universal, government-funded health care - a policy known as single-payer health care that’s become a rallying cry for many liberals. It’s time for the party’s progressive wing to flex its muscles, she said.
“We’ve got a two-thirds supermajority. Why is there even a discussion about passing single-payer?” Tushnet said.
While both major candidates for party chair endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, Sanders supporters have rallied around Kimberly Ellis, the former head of an organization that works to elect Democratic women to office.
Ellis has called for new blood in the party, a dig at her main rival, Eric Bauman, the party’s vice chair who points to Democrats’ dominance in California and says the party needs a steady hand to continue that success. Bauman has lined up the support from the vast majority of elected Democrats and was the overwhelming favorite to win until agitators loyal to Sanders surged Ellis’ support.
“It’s just not enough for the Democratic Party to be the anti-Trump party,” Bauman says in a campaign video sent to delegates this week. “We must unite around our shared progressive agenda and values.”
The convention in Sacramento provides a platform for the party’s longstanding stalwarts and rising stars alike to fire up their base and gain favor with the activists who can provide money, volunteer time and energy in their campaigns.
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to speak Saturday, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, the former state attorney general who often mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, and all Democrats running for governor. Rep. Adam Schiff, who rose from obscurity to national prominence thanks to his perch as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee in the Trump era, will give the keynote address.
The party’s path back to national relevance will likely go through California, where half of the 14 Republicans in Congress represent districts that supported Clinton over Trump. Democrats need to pick up at least 24 Republican-held seats to win the majority in the U.S. House, gaining the power to issue subpoenas and hold hearings to investigate Trump or, as a handful of lawmakers have suggested, to impeach him.
“I think it’s important that we start now, so we cannot just educate people but get them engaged,” said Tiffany Countryman, a 47-year-old human-resources manager from Lancaster.
Countryman said she’s seen newly active in Democratic politics and is determined to defeat her Congressman, Steve Knight, the only Republican in Congress from Los Angeles County and a top target for Democrats in next year’s election.
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