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Party Pains

I SPENT THIS PAST WEEKEND in Sacramento, walking among the Living Dead — the 1,800 or so delegates to the convention of the California Democratic Party. Most reporters feel similarly about these events, though they are too reticent to say so in print and, therefore, too prone to concede more gravitas to them than they deserve. On the other hand, it’s worth spending a few days a year ambling around like a zombie just to remind yourself how utterly brain-dead both major political parties are.

Not wholly unexpectedly, the convention voted 2-to-1 to endorse state Treasurer Phil Angelides as the official Democratic gubernatorial candidate. The wealthy developer had long ago locked up the support of the party establishment and its elected officials, and nothing was going to get in the way of rubber-stamping him. For starters, a third of the delegates are named directly by office-holding pols and official party nominees, and nothing in politics is more rewarded than obedience and loyalty. The vote came on the same day that a Los Angeles Times poll showed Angelides’ rival, the even wealthier Steve Westly, a former eBay exec, to be far out in front — particularly in the all-important matchup with incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger. But why should the tastes of actual Democratic voters have anything to do with what The Party decides? Likewise, imagine the surreal predicament of former Governor Jerry Brown — an immensely popular Democrat — who is currently leading Rocky Delgadillo by a 30-point margin in the race for state attorney general, but who was denied party endorsement. That makes sense, right?

The gubernatorial endorsement and the margin of that vote were, indeed, the only elements of suspense during the three-day convention. The rest was a dreary, if sometimes unintentionally funny, reminder of just how sclerotic the party remains, in spite of all the media buzz about re-energized Democrats.

As the convention was breaking up on Sunday, I couldn’t help but chuckle — partly in sympathy but partly in amazement — at the loud laments from some of the self-proclaimed liberals (like the Progressive Democrats of America) who just couldn’t believe that the party voted down most of its last-minute proposals. The PDA’ers were walking around shell-shocked because the party and organized labor had endorsed the re-election of the rather conservative South Bay Congresswoman Jane Harman over her lefty challenger Marcy Winograd. The latter’s supporters had diligently gathered up the hundreds of signatures necessary to re-float an agenda item before the convention, and were seeking to overturn the Harman endorsement. What they got was an express railroad ticket, the convention chair rushing the measure through an unaccountable “nay” voice-vote.

These progressive folks seem to forget that in party conventions, the delegates are there strictly as unpaid extras in what is otherwise a tightly scripted, totally predetermined political reality show. In my experience, Republican delegates to both national and state party conventions seem to know and readily accept this uncomfortable fact about American party politics. The Republican delegates just don’t care, and seem more than happy to just sit there with their plastic boaters and rubber elephant ears, clapping on cue in exchange for the parties, free buffets and open bars.

But Democratic delegates — often earnest teachers and oh-so-serious community activists — seem permanently embarked on a crusade to convince themselves that this is really their party, hence the nonstop yammering about taking it back, turning it around, taking it over, etc., etc., etc. I’ve been watching this now-ritual kabuki for my entire adulthood (stretching back to McGovern ’72) and nothing, really, seems to change. I actually met shaking and weeping delegates who were outraged — outraged, I tell you — after the move to endorse Winograd was gaveled down on Sunday morning. Aha.

Therein resides some of the real fun in these official party gatherings — the yawning Grand Canyon of a gap between the rhetoric from the podium and the much grimmer reality on the floor, or at least the one behind the curtain. “Promises Kept” was this year’s official convention slogan? But promises to whom?

Apart from the ubiquitous teachers’ and public employees’ unions, the official sponsors of this year’s convention of the Party of the Little Guy included: Verizon, AT&T, Health Net, Mercury Insurance and a handful of Indian gambling tribes. Among them are the two most virulently anti-labor tribes in the state: the Morongos and the Agua Caliente. The latter, known among its critics as the Wal-Mart tribe, has been spending bundles to defeat an organizing drive by the hotel workers union while simultaneously forcing much of its low-wage work force to seek public assistance for health care. The tribe, however, “sponsors” a whole team of Democratic pols with it bottomless millions in political contributions.

Apart from the ubiquitous teachers’ and public employees’ unions, the official sponsors of this year’s convention of the Party of the Little Guy included: Verizon, AT&T, Health Net, Mercury Insurance and a handful of Indian gambling tribes. Among them are the two most virulently anti-labor tribes in the state: the Morongos and the Agua Caliente. The latter, known among its critics as the Wal-Mart tribe, has been spending bundles to defeat an organizing drive by the hotel workers union while simultaneously forcing much of its low-wage work force to seek public assistance for health care. The tribe, however, “sponsors” a whole team of Democratic pols with its bottomless millions in political contributions.

THE SPEAKER OF THE CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY, Fabian Nuñez, who had been prominently scheduled on the podium roster (his name was also printed boldly on the plastic pouch that held the delegates’ credentials around their necks), turned out to be a no-show. He was tied up a few hours west of the convention site at the ultra-posh Pebble Beach golf resort, where he was being feted by all the little guys from AT&T. Speaker Nuñez has been steadfastly defending the legislative interests of the telecommunications giant, which stands to make billions in a regulatory fight with the cable industry.

Party Chairman Art Torres, meanwhile, had been waylaid by prostate cancer. His replacement to chair the convention was none other than the legendary Willie Brown — the longest-serving Assembly Speaker in state history and the former mayor of San Francisco. At the podium, decked out in one of his signature Brioni suits, the charismatic Brown lapped up the adulatory applause and humbly described himself as serving nowadays as nothing more than a simple “talk-show host.” He forgot to mention that his day job is that of corporate lobbyist. During last fall’s special-election cycle in California, Brown pocketed several hundred thousand dollars as a strategist for Big Pharma — hired to head off a ballot prop that would have provided cheaper prescription drugs. “I’m feeling great, wonderful, never better,” Willie told us as he approached the podium on opening night. And why not? It’s his party, after all.?

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