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What to watch for at this weekend’s California Democratic Party convention

What to watch for at this weekend’s California Democratic Party convention
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco speaks at the California Democratic Party convention on Feb. 24, 2018, in San Diego. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Democratic state party leaders, activists and elected officials will all descend on San Francisco this weekend to strategize and pick a new party leader. Party members will be joined by nearly every major 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, 14 of whom have journeyed west to court California delegates.

Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s California Democratic Party convention.

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Does every state have a convention like this? Why is California’s such a big deal?

The short answer is yes. The state-level political parties, whether they're Democratic or Republican, have these conventions in every state. Think on-the-ground-level organizing, discussion about the direction of the party and opportunities for elected officials to hobnob with the dedicated activists. But state conventions are typically pretty insular, political nerd affairs.

The reason California's convention feels like such a big deal is because California itself is so big. We have a dominant state Democratic Party that has a lot of fundraising muscle and the ability to attract high-profile figures, both from California and out-of-state. The state convention is a magnet for big names. As with a lot of things in California, it's really about the scale.

The California Democratic Party is electing a new chair this weekend. What does that mean for the party?

The state party is striving to restore its credibility after a sexual harassment scandal led to the resignation of Chairman Eric Bauman in November. It’s a critical moment for a party that had so much success in the November election, when Democrats gained seven congressional seats in California and took control of the House of Representatives.

The next chair must not only address the party’s internal workplace culture and operations, but also prepare for an earlier-than-usual 2020 presidential primary in March and defend Democrats who narrowly won seats in Congress and the Legislature in 2018.

The front-runners for the chair’s post are Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Rusty Hicks, party Vice Chairman Daraka Larimore-Hall and Bay Area activist Kimberly Ellis, who narrowly lost to Bauman in 2017. Hicks led one of the most influential labor organizations in California. In her last campaign, Ellis became the favorite of Democratic activists who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race.

Will former party Chairman Eric Bauman attend the convention?

According to his attorney, Bauman has "no plans to attend the convention in any capacity at all."

A group of delegates previously filed charges through an internal process seeking to remove Bauman as a delegate. (As an immediate past state chair, he still holds a position on the state central committee and the party's smaller executive board.)

Last week, the state party's top officers stopped short of removing Bauman as a delegate. But they did ban him from attending the spring convention and stripped him of his ability to vote or send a proxy to vote in his place.

Will we still be seeing aftershocks at the convention from the sexual harassment scandal that fractured the state party?

The party has been hit with multiple lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and workplace retaliation, so expect to see leaders go out of their way to reaffirm the party’s principles of diversity, equality and inclusion. This is especially important with a crucial election year approaching and some within the party worrying that the legal troubles could hurt efforts to raise money and inspire volunteers.

There might also be some fireworks during the campaign events and speeches by the candidates for party chair, since the state party is facing allegations that its leaders failed to address problems within their own ranks.

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Who are the biggest power brokers at the convention? How will they shape the weekend?

It's sort of like a Russian nesting doll of powerful entities. There's the big convention floor that will be open to all the delegates. But within the party, there are many caucuses representing various affinity groups, such as the rural caucus or the Latino caucus or the labor caucus. These are fairly influential groups and we’ll see politicians coming by to have more intimate connections with these various groups.

Some of the biggest, most influential players in the state Capitol also tend to throw big parties. Attending the parties will be a who's who of the progressive universe. For interest groups, throwing these parties is a way to say, “Look how much we matter; look at how we can get some of the buzziest electeds to show up.”

This is a very important weekend for Gavin Newsom. What does he need to achieve?

This is Newsom’s first California Democratic Party convention since he was elected governor and, as their de facto leader, he must try to bring the disparate factions of the party together so they’re prepared for the 2020 election.

Newsom already has made strides to unite the state party in just a few months in office. The governor’s support for universal healthcare, his ongoing feud with Trump and a decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty have appealed to both the Democratic establishment and the party’s most fervent activists.

Still, don’t expect Newsom to be the center of attention throughout the three-day convention. He’ll offer a brief address to delegates on Saturday and will quickly cede the spotlight to the 14 presidential candidates expected to speak at the convention.

Will Sen. Kamala Harris have a home state advantage at the convention?

It's hard to have a home state advantage in a place as massive as California. Unless you've been a political figure in the state for decades, like Jerry Brown or Dianne Feinstein, it's difficult to generate that geographic loyalty. Harris has actually been polling behind Joe Biden and Sanders among California voters. But both Biden and Sanders have been on presidential tickets in either a primary or a general election in the state, so there's a deep familiarity for voters. We'll probably see something of a favored daughter status for Harris this weekend, with her prime speaking slot at the convention and parties featuring her. Questions remain about how Harris will be received among activists who aren't the traditional party leaders.

Fourteen presidential candidates will be there, but not Biden. Why?

It's an interesting decision for Biden not to come to this convention. He is going to be in San Francisco later next week for a fundraising jaunt. So, the calculus may be why make yourself one of 14 — and potentially not get the warmest reception — when you could just focus your energies elsewhere for the weekend and then come back and build those California relationships in other ways.

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Obviously, there are a lot of headlines now about Biden skipping the convention. But the truth is this may not really be his crowd. The state party is pretty progressive. There's a sizable contingent of Sanders supporters. If Biden is trying to carve out a more centrist lane in the primary field, the audience at this convention may not give him the warmest reception.

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