At California convention, Democratic candidates unite in bashing Trump but squabble over issues

Sen. Kamala Harris, one of the contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, addresses the California state Democratic Party convention in San Francisco on Saturday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Chanting, clapping and occasionally squabbling among themselves, thousands of Democrats on Saturday turned San Francisco into a festival of dissent aimed at driving President Trump from office.

The difference from any other day in this famously liberal bastion was organization and a formal agenda: The gathering was hosted by California’s Democratic Party, which attracted 5,000 delegates and guests and a small platoon of presidential hopefuls to its spring convention.

For the record:

6:20 a.m. June 3, 2019An earlier version of this article stated that Beto O’Rourke focused on a compassionate education system at a MoveOn event in San Francisco. O’Rourke focused on a compassionate immigration system.

Kamala Harris, the state’s junior U.S. senator and a presidential contestant, set the fist-shaking tone early on.


“Democrats, we have a fight on our hands,” she said, “and it’s a fight for who we are as a people. It’s a fight for the highest ideals of our nation. And Democrats, with this president, it’s a fight for truth itself.”

She brought delegates to their feet declaring, “We need to begin impeachment proceedings and we need a new commander in chief” — a view not shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had addressed her hometown San Francisco crowd a short time earlier.

Other White House hopefuls eagerly piled on the president.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called Trump a coward, saying, “He’s tearing apart the moral fabric of this country and turning our most cherished principles inside out.”

Bay Area Rep. Eric Swalwell said Trump’s “reality TV” presidency was destined for cancellation.

In all, 11 contestants sounded familiar partisan themes, calling for expanded healthcare, protecting a women’s right to choose abortion, enacting labor-friendly policies and pursuing vigorous efforts to stem climate change.

A fiery New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker decried the “normalizing of mass murder in our country” a day after a gunman killed 12 in Virginia Beach, Va. He called for redoubled efforts to pass nationwide gun control legislation. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas proposed a national assault weapons ban.


Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who along with Booker drew the day’s most enthusiastic responses, laid out a lengthy and detailed policy plank.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts laid out several planks in her lengthy policy platform.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“We will break up big ag,” she vowed. “We will break up big banks. We will break up big tech. We will make it easier for workers to join in a union.”

In one of the few seeming swipes at a rival, Warren took issue with former Vice President Joe Biden’s assertion that GOP lawmakers may come around to compromise under a new Democratic president.

“Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses,” Warren said. “But our country is in a time of crisis.”

The partisan crowd cheered loudly.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew a contrast of his own. Comparing himself with his many Washington-based opponents, Buttigieg suggested Trump could be reelected if Democrats offer “too much more of the same” in 2020.


“We better come up with something completely different. And that’s where I come in,” said the 37-year-old openly gay chief executive of South Bend, Ind. “Why not someone who represents a new generation of leaders?”

But the sharpest distinction was presented by former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was roundly booed when he declared that socialism is not the answer to beating Trump. He was booed again when he expressed skepticism about government-run healthcare and the Green New Deal program to fight climate change — proposals that are sacrosanct to the left-leaning activists who made up the bulk of convention delegates.

“If we’re not careful,” he chided over the hooting and hollering, “we’re going to end up reelecting the worst president in American history.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee offered a crisp rejoinder when he spoke immediately after Hickenlooper. “I’m a governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values,” he said.

The gathering was the first since the midterm election, when California Democrats ran the table on statewide offices and picked up seven congressional seats, a good chunk of the gains that gave the party control of the House.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas told the crowd in San Francisco that President Trump "seeks to divide an already polarized country.”
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Some presidential hopefuls waited well over an hour during the morning session while statewide officers and legislative leaders took turns at the podium; Gov. Gavin Newsom jokingly referred to himself as the undercard when he spoke.

He held up California as the nation’s political counterweight to Trump, urging the presidential contestants on hand to pay heed.

“We are nothing less than the progressive answer to a transgressive president,” Newsom said. “California’s what happens when rights are respected, when work is rewarded, when nature’s protected, when diversity is celebrated and free markets are fair markets.”

Pelosi, who drew a rapturous response, portrayed the Democratic-led House as a central player in a watershed moment of history as it investigates the Trump administration.

Recapping the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and Trump was not exonerated of obstruction allegations — she pledged that the president “will be held accountable for his actions. In the Congress, in the courts and in the court of public opinion, we will defend our democracy.”

The response was repeated calls from the crowd for impeachment.


Outside the downtown convention hall, the sidewalks swarmed with delegates, identifiable not just by their credentials but the T-shirts and buttons promoting favored causes: the right to abortion, universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage and opposition to involuntary circumcision.

They posed with cardboard cutouts of Pelosi in fashionable sunglasses and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in an all-white pantsuit and clamored for selfies with Harris, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other presidential hopefuls.

At a separate event just down the street, the progressive advocacy group MoveOn hosted eight of the candidates to offer one “big idea” that would reshape politics and society. Most of those who took the stage at the Warfield Theatre showcased proposals they had previously unveiled.

Sanders vowed to bring a halt to “endless wars” and shift spending on the military toward his plan to vastly expand social services and the safety net. Harris presented her proposal for equal pay, which would heavily tax companies that fail to pay the women in their workforce as much as men doing equal work. In a startling moment, an animal rights activist grabbed Harris’ microphone before being hustled off the stage.

Gillibrand talked up her plan for universal family leave, O’Rourke focused on his vision for a compassionate immigration system, and Booker promoted his “baby bond” proposal that would have the government contribute to a savings account for every American from birth through childhood.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota called for a federal law that would register every American to vote when they turn 18, and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro previewed a plan he will soon unveil to reform police forces nationwide.


Biden, who was notably absent Saturday as he campaigned in Ohio, sought to steal a meager slice of the limelight by announcing that he had received the endorsement of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who served as Labor secretary in the Obama administration.

One potential presidential candidate used the convention to opt out: Joe Sanberg, the Los Angeles-based entrepreneur who flirted with a poverty-focused campaign, announced he would not pursue the Democratic nomination.

Delegates in San Francisco also elected labor leader Rusty Hicks as California party chairman, succeeding Eric Bauman, who resigned last year following a series of sexual harassment allegations.

Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, bested Bay Area activist Kimberly Ellis, who narrowly lost to Bauman in 2017.

With 3,162 votes counted, Hicks dominated with 57% of the vote. Ellis received 36% of the votes, and Daraka Larimore-Hall, the party’s current vice chair, trailed with just 6%.

Times staff writers Evan Halper in Washington and Christine Mai-Duc and Phil Willon in San Francisco contributed to this report.


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