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Springtime for Democrats

I. A Happy Ending for Act 1

So it’s a wrap for the presidential-primary season, and a fine season it was. In John Kerry, the Democrats chose their strongest candidate, who, I suspect, is almost an oxymoron in national politics: an electable liberal. (Let’s keep that between us, okay?) And the Kerry who emerged from the primary season is not just a stronger candidate than the Kerry who started out, but also more electable and more liberal. Who’d a thunk it?

Kerry’s calling card was always that he was the Democrats’ tough dove: the Vietnam War hero who led the movement of anti-war Viet vets. That gave him the bona fides to seem an entirely plausible commander in chief, a sine qua non for any Democratic nominee in the post-9/11 era. Unlike John Edwards, he seemed tough enough to go to war; unlike George Bush, he seemed smart enough not to.

Kerry brought a record to the race that should have appealed to liberals from the get-go, were it not for his inexplicable vote to authorize Bush’s war. (It is only after listening to Kerry’s repeated attempts to explain his vote that I have concluded it is inexplicable.) His record on matters environmental is probably the best in the Senate. His investigation that led to unearthing the Iran-contra scandal was the work of a dedicated anti-imperialist. His stance on Israel and Palestine was less knee-jerk pro-Israel than that of most Democrats, and of all his serious presidential rivals (Edwards and Howard Dean, most especially). His positions on a range of cultural questions — his opposition to the death penalty, his defense of gay rights — were as enlightened as you find in mainstream politics.

To be sure, Kerry always had racked up big margins among Massachusetts’ working-class voters, but he was nobody’s idea of a working-class hero. Just as Democrats from the Bay Area take on the worldview of Silicon Valley gazillionaires, Kerry has long been a tribune for Boston’s Route 128 techie tycoons. On trade questions in particular, his zeal to defend intellectual-property rights exceeded his zeal on behalf of workers.

But a year on the campaign trail has changed him. The decimation of domestic manufacturing in the Age of Bush has made the American public even more skeptical of the claims that free traders make for their doctrine. In exit polling, Democrats across the nation said they believed that free trade destroyed more jobs than it created, in most states by a 2-to-1 margin. Pressured by the unions, and with Dean and Edwards leading the way, all the Democrats committed themselves to trade agreements that specifically defended worker rights and environmental standards as assiduously as they did property rights. They further committed themselves to an AFL-CIO-sponsored bill that would require an employer to recognize a union when a majority of employees had signed affiliation cards, and force that employer into binding arbitration if he stalled on agreeing to a first contract.

Kerry had already been moving by inches on trade before the campaign began. During the 2002 debate on fast track, he authored an amendment that would have kept corporations from using accords like NAFTA to overturn state and local environmental law. But the campaign has moved him more; he now rails against corporate outsourcing, and notes routinely that the American workplace has become patently one-sided and that workers must be allowed to organize.

The Bush tax cuts, meanwhile, were so blatant a form of class warfare that all the Democratic candidates began talking in a more populist vein. But Kerry is most plausibly populist when he’s surrounded by his Vietnam boat-mates, recalling the one period in his life when he truly was one of the guys. At his best, as he was in Iowa and New Hampshire, his genuine indignation at Bush took on a sharper edge as he campaigned in the company of working-class boyos — both Viet vets and firefighters (the one union to endorse him early on) — who’d been bled by Bushonomics. The vaporous abstractions that come naturally to Kerry evaporated in the presence of real people with real problems.

Stylistically, Kerry may prove as exasperating as Al Gore did in the 2000 campaign, but this isn’t 2000, and even then, overemphasizing the importance of Gore’s pomposity was a stupid indulgence that liberals and the nation could ill afford. Okay, Kerry has his own limitations — the only way his usual public-speaking style may be made to seem normal is if, in fact, he becomes president. But so what? Compared to the present occupant of the office, determined to destroy all social programs by underfunding them, bent on creating an armed strike force free from popular control, Kerry could cluck like a chicken and it wouldn’t matter a damn.

As the primary season ends, it’s Bush, not Kerry, whom the American people see as out of touch. W.’s tanking really began with his State of the Union speech, in which he proposed nothing at all that was remotely germane to the dilemmas of job loss, shrinking medical coverage and unaffordable college. It accelerated with the announcement from his own chief weapons inspectors that there were no WMD in Iraq. Kerry may have problems with manner, but Bush has problems with substance, problems he inflicts on the voting public. It’s been, as I said, a good primary season.

II. A New Order in South-Central

Here in Los Angeles, the victory of community activist Karen Bass in the Democratic primary to fill the Assembly seat to be vacated by the term-limited former speaker, Herb Wesson, points to a revolution in local African-American and city politics. Like Martin Ludlow, who was elected last year to a City Council seat overlapping this Assembly district, Bass was a candidate who ran with strong labor backing while one of her opponents, attorney Ricky Ivey, claimed the support of the old guard of black politics: Yvonne Burke and Maxine Waters, for starters.

Beginning in 1997, the L.A. County Federation of Labor had signal successes electing pro-labor progressive candidates in the Latino community: Hilda Solis, Antonio Villaraigosa, Gil Cedillo, and the new Assembly speaker (and former County Fed political director), Fabien Nunez. It had no such successes in the African-American community, however, where such newly elected candidates as City Council Members Jan Perry and Bernard Parks had more affinity for business perspectives than for labor-backed initiatives like the living wage. When Villaraigosa ran for mayor in 2001, his campaign came a cropper when the black community — most especially, the old-guard political elite — preferred a centrist white (Jim Hahn) to a progressive Latino. Younger African-American activists, some of them aligned with Councilman-turned-Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, worked for Villaraigosa — among them Ludlow and Bass.

But South-Central is changing. The Latino share of the electorate is growing. The local labor movement has embarked on its first serious campaign in years to organize a largely black work force (in this case, security guards). And so, last year, Ludlow was elected to the council after a campaign in which he received intense labor backing.

Bass won an even more impressive victory than Ludlow: She pulled down 48 percent of the vote to 21 percent for aging demagogue Nate Holden and 19 percent for Ivey. Bass, who’s long headed a multiracial organization that’s been successful in reducing the number of liquor stores in South-Central, was an exceptionally attractive candidate. But she also benefited from independent expenditure campaigns from Ludlow and Villaraigosa on her behalf, and from a County Fed effort that saw 620 volunteers walking precincts for her last weekend.

In short, as the labor movement has transformed L.A.’s Latino politics, it is now beginning to transform L.A.’s black politics as well. In a city that’s prey to Balkanization and black-Latino conflict, the emergence of a cross-racial, class-based progressive force is just about the best news imaginable.


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