Progressives struggle for influence in California Democratic Party after health care defeat

Headquarters of the California Democratic Party in Sacramento. Courtesy of the US Green Building Council

The message was clear and, more importantly, it was strong: Progressive activists would work to block the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of any lawmaker who did not support a single-payer health care bill in the face of at a crucial legislative deadline at the end of January.

However, their threat did not convince the hesitant lawmakers to join them, and the bill was shelved without a vote. Two weeks later, the chairman of the party’s progressive caucus announcement that activists had abandoned their campaign to withdraw endorsements from uncooperative incumbents, accusing Democratic officials of obstructing them.

“The party is using every advantage it has under the bylaws to make sure there is no democracy in the Democratic Party,” Progressive Caucus Chairman Amar Shergill told CalMatters.

Inspired by US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont’s staunchly left-leaning presidential campaign in 2016, a wave of political outsiders once seemed poised to remake the California Democratic Party. But the momentum of their movement, which coincided with heightened liberal energy in resistance to then-President Donald Trump, appears to have peaked.

Sanders supporters organized early on to elect new delegates to the state party, giving the progressive wing more leverage to push for political positions and endorsements for candidates who could challenge the stalwarts of the state party. establishment, including US Senator Dianne Feinstein of the left.

Yet in the five years since then, they have struggled to achieve their biggest and most important goals, including twice failing to elevate one of their own to leader of the California Democratic Party. Earlier this month, party officials passed new restrictions on campaign contributions that fell short of progressive demands to stop taking money entirely from fossil fuel companies, unions charged with law enforcement and health insurers.

As delegates gather virtually this weekend for the annual state party convention, nearly all sitting lawmakers who run again will be vetted on a consent schedule, while Shergill encourages progressives to withhold their donations and their party volunteer time and focus their organizing energy on outside groups. He also has guest the leader of the newly formed Working Families Party to address the caucus on Saturday evening.

The divisiveness reflects how the perennial ideological tension within California’s mainstream political party has intensified and frozen in recent years. As newly empowered activists, many of whom were new to organized politics, stepped up their tactics to demand change, just as party leaders backed down to maintain a status quo that largely helped elect Democrats in the state. for decades.

Although the progressive wing’s influence hasn’t completely waned – several political consultants have refused to discuss the recorded momentum with CalMatters for fear of angering the delegates they need to woo to endorse campaigns on which they work — a lack of wins to back up their more aggressive political style has sent a signal to some Democrats to simply ignore them.

Tenoch Flores, the party’s former communications director from 2009 to 2015 who now works as a consultant for progressive causes, said there was more acrimony and hurt feelings about those fights than in the past. He attributed it to frustration with a movement that has drawn increased attention to its causes but hasn’t gained momentum or influence to match, a dynamic he said would be important for its leaders manage.

“One of the beliefs is that if you have passionate speeches and shout truth to power, you can change politics overnight,” Flores said. “They are unable to carry out any of their threats.”

Despite numerous interview requests, the California Democratic Party did not make Chairman Rusty Hicks available for this story.

Internal division over party leadership

This is not the first time that the California Democratic Party has been through these battles, which are also taking place within the national party and in other states. In neighboring Nevada, top Democratic politicians and their allies established a rival campaign apparatus after the state party elected a leftist president.

Karen Bernal, former chair of the Californian party’s Progressive Caucus for three terms from 2009-2013 and 2017-2019, said there is a fundamental conflict over party function among rank-and-file members, who join by affinity ideological, and politicians, for whom it is a conduit for money and other campaign resources.

“It’s always been a struggle between the grassroots and the legislative leadership,” she said.

The party experienced a similar wave of insurgent progressive activism after Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign in 2004, Bernal said, and then the energy waned during the Obama years when identity politics neutralized the philosophical divide.

But the reaction from party officials is more “iron-fisted” this time around, she said. She pointed to elaborate campaigns for favorite elected officials on delegate lists after progressives unexpectedly swept races in 2017 and rule changes when activists found ways to challenge the power structure.

After Progressives called a meeting of the party’s executive board to pursue a ban on donations from groups they see as conflicting with the California Democratic party platform, the rules committee proposed an amendment to the bylaws. which raises the threshold for requesting a special meeting, including by doubling the number of signatures required. It was passed in late February, over the same weekend, when officials approved a scaled-down proposal that gives the party more flexibility about when to reject contributions.

Activists say their efforts to challenge lawmakers who failed to back single-payer legislation failed because the party misinterpreted its own bylaws that establish a process for challenging endorsements and shut them down.

Combined, Bernal said, all of these measures demonstrate a desperate establishment to stick to the status quo — and how far it will go to silence progressive dissent.

“Their influence is broken from above,” she said. “They were surrounded and confined. But does this mean that their fight does not resonate? No.”

Where do the progressives go next?

While that fight is unlikely to resonate outside of a small group of voters invested in party politics, several strategists said it presents an unnecessary distraction for Democrats in an election year where polls suggest that they face growing political headwinds and could ultimately undermine the position of progressives in California.

Andrew Acosta, a political consultant who frequently works with moderate Democrats in swing districts, said single-payer activists overstated their hand with the threat of withdrawing endorsements. With voter unease over pocketbook issues such as inflation at the forefront, he said it was not the right year to take on a legislative fight that would require massive tax increases. (Proponents of a single-payer health care system argue that Californians would ultimately pay less than they currently do for insurance premiums.)

Although politicians react to party dynamics, Acosta said, they must first be aware of their constituents. As Democrats try to defend legislative supermajorities that allow them to raise taxes and qualify ballot measures without a Republican vote, they didn’t want to provide their opponents with an easy campaign attack that they’re out of touch with economic concerns. urgent.

“People feel it, man,” Acosta said, “It’s just hard to tell people they’re not.”

The outsized response from single-payer advocates to the bill’s failure last month – including warnings that they might back a challenger to Assemblyman Ash Kalra, the San Jose Democrat who passed the measure , because he did not submit it to a vote – also turned off many in Sacramento.

Flores, the party’s former spokesperson, called it a “self-marginalizing” moment for the progressive movement and a message for the dozens of new lawmakers who will arrive on Capitol Hill next year after an unusually high number. resignations and retirements.

“Is that really what they’re going to want to deal with?” he said. “A lot of what’s on display isn’t how you build a winning legislative coalition.”

Shergill, the chair of the progressive caucus who frequently critical hicks on social networks, dismissed the idea that his tactics had weakened the position of the party’s left wing. He said he would continue to advocate for progressives to create their own organizations that could operate freely outside of the California Democratic Party.

“When we succeed, it’s perfect. When we’re not, it reinforces that message that the party can’t be trusted with your time and effort,” he said. “For progressives, there is never a scenario where we lose because either we win the problem or we teach our members lessons on how to win the next fight.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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