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A Divided Democratic Party Concludes State Convention

Times Staff Writer

Bob Harmon rose in protest Sunday when state Democratic leaders signaled that they would not fight the $15-billion debt proposal that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put on the March ballot.

“If this party stands for nothing, then we can expect nothing from the voters in return,” the Marin County law student told fellow delegates at the state Democratic convention.

Harmon lost the battle: The party took no position on the ballot measure.

The dispute reflected not just tensions among Democrats over how aggressively to challenge the Republican governor, but also the more fundamental split -- both in California and nationally -- between liberals and moderates over the party’s direction.

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As it happens, many of the Democrats pushing for a tough fight against Schwarzenegger also back presidential candidate Howard Dean, the ex-Vermont governor whom centrist rivals portray as too liberal to win. The liberals argue that Democrats can draw broad public support only by sticking to their principles.

“I’ve seen too many Democratic nominees who were too tepid, people who run safely and lose safely,” said Harmon, a Dean partisan. “This guy’s a fighter.”

In California, many Democratic activists see vigorous opposition to Schwarzenegger as a matter of defending the party’s values. And they don’t share the fear of Democratic lawmakers that Schwarzenegger might undermine their support by painting them as obstructionists thwarting his “California recovery” agenda.

“I think he’s a jerk, to put it mildly,” said San Diego delegate Gloria Johnson, who views Schwarzenegger’s cigar smoking with lawmakers on a state Capitol patio as “unhealthy and sexist.” “I think we should take him on.”

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The weekend gathering of nearly 2,000 Democrats showcased the state party’s liberal wing, from which its activists are drawn. The best received speakers were U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the country’s most liberal senators, and state Treasurer Phil Angelides, the party’s most outspoken critic of Schwarzenegger.

Nonetheless, some moderates at the convention were wary of open confrontation with a Republican governor who was elected in a voter uprising against his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis. They welcome efforts by Democrats who control the Legislature to work with Schwarzenegger.

“If you start at the table with antagonism, you’ll never get anywhere,” said Granada Hills delegate Sid Gold. “Nothing will be accomplished. It will jeopardize the quality of life in our state.”

Gold, 60, calls himself a pragmatist. His pick for president is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, whose conservative tilt on Iraq and other issues has made him a pariah to liberals.

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To Gold, a physician, Dean seems like a sure loser. “He appeals to one-third of the voters in the country,” Gold said.

On Gold’s lapel were Lieberman and Steve Westly buttons. Westly, the state controller, has crossed party lines to form an alliance with Schwarzenegger to campaign for the $15-billion debt measure. The borrowed money would cover state budget shortfalls.

“This was the responsible and nonpartisan thing to do to set the state back on the right track,” Westly said of the measure, which Democratic lawmakers agreed to put on the ballot.

East Bay delegate Bill McMillin likes the nonpartisan approach -- even if he has misgivings about the borrowing.

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“There are probably as many -- maybe not quite as many -- good-hearted Republicans as good-hearted Democrats,” said McMillin, a real estate broker rooting for presidential hopeful John Kerry. “If you have two parties that fight with one another at the extremes, then you don’t get anything accomplished.”

For Democrats and Republicans alike, the struggle between strict ideology and pragmatism is constant. In modern presidential politics, the perils of playing to the party’s base were shown most dramatically in the defeats of conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and liberal Democrat George McGovern in 1972.

Among Democrats, the centrists rose to prominence in 1992 along with Bill Clinton, who cut a more conservative swath through the issues than prior presidential nominees. California’s move to the middle occurred simultaneously, as Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Davis began racking up victories.

In California, Democrats positioning themselves to run for governor in 2006 are split. Angelides has appealed most aggressively to his party’s base, pounding Schwarzenegger for the debt plan and cuts to higher education, among other things. More accommodating are Westly and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer -- Westly by co-chairing the bond campaign and Lockyer by acknowledging that he voted for Schwarzenegger.

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With the governor’s race far off, it’s impossible to know which path holds the most promise. “It’s sort of predicting the future,” said David Sears, a UCLA political science professor. “It’s a gamble on how the public is going to ultimately react.”

At the convention, Democrats opted for caution on the immediate question at hand: Should the party support or oppose Schwarzenegger’s bond measure? The party took no position, leaving it to state Chairman Art Torres to decide in the weeks ahead.

The move did not sit well with some die-hard liberals on the convention floor.

“Schwarzenegger and Bush, they’re going to make our grandchildren pay for their folly -- for their greed and shortsightedness,” said Santa Clarita delegate Carole Lutness, 62, referring to the return of the federal budget deficit under President Bush.

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The preferred route to Lutness is staunch opposition to Schwarzenegger. To her, the absence of any stand against his debt proposal was another sign that Democrats had redefined their party as “Republican-Lite.”


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