California Democratic gathering offers chance to celebrate, and challenges too

California Democrats, kicking off their annual convention Friday in Sacramento, celebrated their statewide sweep in November that defied a nationwide Republican wave.

“The red movement was going on, but the blue wave in California held strong,” said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, welcoming delegates at a reception Friday night. “I want to say, I think 2012 is going to be an even better party than it was in 2010.”

To be sure, the party has many advantages over Republicans: control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, a deep bench of future leaders and demographic trends that show sharp increases in Californians who tend to vote Democratic.

But their success at the ballot box has yet to be reflected in the solving of Sacramento’s problems.

“Sometimes when you win every race, you tend to get overconfident, cocky,” former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s great to win elections, but the public wants a better job done in Sacramento. Until we actually have made life better in California, it’s premature to take a bow.”


Davis’ reelection to office in 2002 offers a prime lesson. That was an equally ebullient time for California Democrats, the last time they won every statewide office. Less than a year later, voters kicked Davis out of office in a recall and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That election was unique because of Schwarzenegger’s unparalleled celebrity. But strategists and political experts say it is a reminder that voters’ loyalties are fickle, a reality reflected nationally when Democratic dominance in 2008 was followed by a Republican resurgence in 2010.

The stakes are heightened for Democrats in California because they hold nearly all the cards at a time of pervasive state dysfunction, marked by multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls, deep unemployment and a looming pension shortfall. If Democrats are able to engineer solutions, they will receive credit from voters, strategists say. If not, they will shoulder wrath.

“When you control every statewide office, you get your opportunities and your problems. You’ve got to govern, you’ve got to produce,” said Dan Newman, a Democratic strategist. “Voters trusted us to lead, and we won. Now we need to show some successes.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, whose promise that he’d craft a gimmick-free budget has been thwarted by unified Republicans, is scheduled to address the 2,500 delegates and supporters gathered in Sacramento on Sunday. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is up for reelection next year, will speak Saturday.

Since this is not an election year, much of the weekend will be focused on energizing the party faithful and rallying the activists who will reach out to voters in the 2012 election. A prime interest for Democrats next year is increasing the party’s heft in growing areas where voter registration has seesawed between the parties recently, including parts of the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

“There’s definitely a strong movement to register more Democrats in traditionally Republican areas, and that really paid off in 2008,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant. “There’s also an acknowledgment that you need to reach out to those independent voters who decide a lot of elections.”

The party on Friday began discussing how to deal with Proposition 14, which ended partisan primaries and created a system in which the top two vote-getters in a primary compete in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

At their March convention, Republicans brawled publicly about how to give their imprimatur to preferred candidates, ultimately deciding that a pre-primary survey of all registered GOP voters would determine their endorsement. Democrats were heading toward building upon an existing process under which small groups of party insiders would endorse candidates.

Little controversy is expected at this weekend’s gathering, but it may be the last peaceful one for a while. For the first time, a commission — and not lawmakers themselves — will draw new congressional and legislative district lines. The commission is expected to finalize its maps in August, and some powerful Democratic incumbents may be facing off in new districts.

“That means there is a civil war right around the corner for Democrats. There are going to be tough, bitter primary battles in 2012 when incumbents get seated in the same district,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego. “You’re going to see black versus brown, Asian versus Latino, old guard versus new guard—you’re going to see all the civil wars you have had in the Democratic Party reappearing.”