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California candidates pull out all the stops to woo Democratic delegates for an endorsement

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Delegates pack a labor caucus meeting Friday night at the California Democratic Party’s convention in San Diego. More than 3,000 delegates in the party are deciding which candidates to back with an endorsement this weekend.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Ingrid Gunnel must feel like the most popular voter in Southern California.

Text messages from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom routinely pop up on her cellphone. Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who is running for attorney general, penned her a handwritten letter. Entreaties from dozens of other politicians have appeared in her mailbox and Facebook timeline for weeks.

“I get text messages every five minutes, it feels like at least,” said Gunnel, a former elementary school teacher from Glendale who is now a union representative for United Teachers Los Angeles.

She is among more than 3,000 delegates in the California Democratic Party being lavished with attention as they help decide which candidates to back with an endorsement this weekend at the state party convention in San Diego. There, the delegates will weigh endorsements in races for governor, the U.S. Senate and a bevy of other contests up and down the state.

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California’s June 5 primary might seem far away to most voters, but for the delegates there’s been no escaping it. One delegate told party chairman Eric Bauman he received 245 text messages, nine missed calls, 1,052 voicemails and countless emails — in just the past month.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

With Gov. Jerry Brown leaving office because of term limits, one of the most coveted political prizes in California is up for grabs for the first time since 2010.

The intrigue surrounding California’s U.S. Senate race is also on the upswing. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, running for her fifth full term, is trying to beat back a challenge from the left by state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles. It could be a major blow to Feinstein if she fails to land the party nod after representing California in the Senate since 1992.

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Nabbing the party endorsement not only sends a clear signal to California Democrats who haven’t been paying much attention to the races, it also comes with financial support from the state party. In the 2016 Senate race, the state Democratic Party spent more than $500,000 backing then-Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris’ campaign against fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, the former Orange County congresswoman. Harris won the endorsement overwhelmingly at the party’s convention in San Jose that year.

The schmoozing began as soon as the convention kicked off Friday, and lasts through the weekend. On Saturday, De León will dish out tacos to delegates and the Feinstein campaign scheduled an early breakfast to start the day.

The night before, Feinstein was mobbed when she walked through the hall, and De León snapped selfies with new fans and greeted longtime supporters. Backers trailed him waving signs bearing his name as they chanted, “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!”

He ran into Jones, who was also followed by a crowd.

“It’s like the two armies meeting,” Jones said as he shook De León’s hand. The hopeful for attorney general hosted an ice cream social for delegates that evening.

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When treasurer and candidate for governor John Chiang walked into the San Diego convention center with an entourage Friday afternoon, delegates swarmed around him wanting to know what he had to offer.

“You coming to karaoke tomorrow night? I can’t want to hear you sing,” one delegate yelled to Chiang, who said he was not only going, he was one of the event’s sponsors.

On Friday night, the candidates also began their run through the gantlet of caucus meetings that represent various factions of the Democratic Party, including labor unions, progressives, Chicanos and Latinos and veterans.

All of the top candidates for governor and Senate and several candidates for down-ballot seats stopped by the labor caucus to pay homage to unions as they sought votes in Saturday’s endorsement contests.

Gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor, received the sourest response from the labor caucus, one of the party’s largest. The one-time union organizer who later castigated teachers’ unions as mayor was greeted with loud boos as he addressed the packed convention hall.

“I’ve been fighting for working people my whole life,” he said as a man in the crowd yelled, “Union buster!”

Jones scored a coveted speaking slot at the party’s progressive caucus meeting, where leaders said they were restricting other candidates’ stump speeches, while making an exception for him. He used the opportunity to bash opponent Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra for supporting the death penalty and “refusing to endorse” a single-payer healthcare bill in the Legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Becerra, a former Los Angeles congressman, as attorney general in 2017 after Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.

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“Now tomorrow, we’re going to have a vote, and it’s going to be a close vote,” he told the delegates. “But I’m confident with the support of each and every one of you that I will be the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party.” The crowd chanted his name as he made his way to the exit.

Gunnel, who was elected as a Democratic delegate last year after running with a slate of progressive Bernie Sanders supporters, said it’s Jones who’s lobbied her the hardest. Along with the letter, he’s called her twice personally.

When he was a little-known state assemblyman from Sacramento, Jones won the Democratic Party’s endorsement in his 2010 campaign for state insurance commissioner over fellow Democrat Hector de la Torre, a state lawmaker from Los Angeles. Jones went on to win the Democratic primary and was elected to back-to-back terms as the state’s top insurance regulator.

The following three texts were received by Tomas Vera a Democratic Party delegate from Placer County
Texts received by Tomas Vera, a Democratic Party delegate from Placer County, seeking his support for Gavin Newsom, Kevin De León and Dianne Feinstein.
(Tomas Vera )

“That was probably the defining moment of his campaign,” Jones’ campaign strategist Parke Skelton said of the party endorsement.

To sew up the state Democratic Party endorsement, candidates must receive at least 60% of the votes from credentialed delegates or their proxies. That can be a tough mark to hit, especially when multiple Democrats are in the running. Delegates also have the option of checking a box for “no endorsement.”

That stacks the odds against any of the Democrats running for governor since delegates will likely splinter among Newsom, Chiang, Villaraigosa and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin.

But the U.S. Senate race and other statewide contests are another story. Bauman said he could not recall this many endorsement contests at a convention in recent memory.

“This seems to be the most contested that I can remember,” he said. “Every delegate is aware that giving the candidates the party’s imprimatur in the primary can greatly effect the result on primary day. People will be taking their duty to be considerate in the endorsement process very, very seriously.”

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Bauman said candidates run the risk that their aggressive outreach to delegates through a high volume of communications can backfire.

“It’s irritating as hell,” he said.

Tomas Vera, a member of Placer County’s Democratic Central Committee, said his mailbox has been stuffed with shiny campaign mailers for weeks. Newsom has also texted him frequently. One recent message: “Hi Tomas, it’s Gavin (really). Hopping on to our texting app to connect with delegates & will be checking in when I can. What matters to you? Be honored to win your support — can I count on you?”

Gunnel said she plans to vote to endorse Newsom, who is backed by her union. But the lieutenant governor can’t count on Vera, who is leaning toward voting for Eastin.

“I know she’s a long shot. But there’s a certain earnestness,” Vera said. “Newsom’s popular because he always expresses the popular opinion.”

A study of California Democratic Party endorsements in the 2012 election by researchers from UC San Diego, the University of Denver and the Public Policy Institute of California found that an endorsement could buoy a candidate’s support by seven to 15 points.

“What this study does show is that those who receive this one endorsement get a substantial advantage in the primary election, and this is an endorsement worth fighting for,” the researchers wrote in 2015. “This study also shows that parties are more than just cheerleaders for particular candidates; they can make them or break them.”

Endorsement campaigns can cost in the neighborhood of five figures and some candidates — notably Newsom and Chiang — have been working this group of delegates for years.

Newsom, who won two statewide elections for lieutenant governor, has in the past hosted flashy parties at the convention. He’s rented venues such as the Grammy Museum at LA Live in downtown Los Angeles, and closed streets in Sacramento to host events featuring celebrities including rapper Common and singer Gavin DeGraw.

“One thing we said we are going to do is not take our party for granted,” Newsom said. “One, it’s respect, because they’re the base of the party, they’re the zeitgeist of energy of our party. They deserve that. Number two, I want to represent the entire party. I don’t want to represent one faction of the party.”

Chiang, a well-known face at these political confabs, has also been working feverishly to win support. He’s been elected to statewide office three times, twice as controller and most recently as treasurer.

A number of party insiders expect Newsom and Chiang to reap the most endorsement votes. Eastin also has a loyal following within the party and is expected to do well, even though she lags in the statewide polls.

Despite serving two terms as mayor of the largest city in California, Villaraigosa is expected to have a much tougher time since he hasn’t been a fixture at the party conventions or run for statewide office. That didn’t stop him from taking a swipe a Newsom, who ran for governor in 2009 only to drop out after Brown signaled his interest in running. Newsom ran for lieutenant governor instead, winning twice, and declared his candidacy for governor in 2015.

“Gavin’s been running for eight years, officially running for three,” Villaraigosa said. “I am working at a disadvantage, but I’m going to work hard to get as much support at the convention as possible.”

Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.

phil.willon@latimes.com; seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon, @LATSeema

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