Saturday, February 24, 2018

California Democratic Party Convention

Standing ovation for Nancy Pelosi

I’ve been a Democrat my entire life. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of me keeping a manual tally of delegate votes during the 1960 Democratic National Convention (DNC), when John Kennedy was nominated. I was six years old and have wanted to be a party delegate ever since.

Although I haven’t served as a DNC delegate (yet!), the national political situation has become so dire that I’ve been feeling the need to do more than just voting and donating money. So I answered a call for volunteers to help-out at this year’s California Democratic state convention in San Diego. I completed the requisite volunteer application form, describing my extensive experience planning and participating in other (non-political) conventions, and was soon invited to participate. I attended the convention today, helping one of the ethnic caucuses.

Tim and I follow the political scene very closely, but we have little knowledge of how candidates are selected, etc. Turns out the state convention is extremely important as this is where endorsements—which translate into campaign funding—are generated. Support is courted through the official party caucuses that represent various political constituencies: veterans, labor, seniors, Chicanos/Latinos, women, environment, Native Americans, etc. I was hoping to help either the women’s or environmental caucus, but was ultimately overjoyed with my assignment.

The caucus chair wasn’t expecting any help and so was pleasantly surprised to have me and another first-time volunteer. He quickly asked us to assist the staff member registering attendees before they entered the relatively small (only 60 seats) meeting room. A short business meeting was held before the floor was opened to candidates, who were each given just one minute (!) to explain their platform and solicit votes. Although most of the campaigners were apparently scheduled in advance, candidates could sign-up on-site in case there was leftover time to speak.

Non-caucus members were welcome to attend, but only members could vote. Therefore, much of the activity at our desk consisted of registering and collecting dues ($25) from new members who wanted to vote. While the staff member and the other volunteer handled that task, I signed-up unscheduled candidates who wanted to speak. I then physically carried their business cards into the meeting room and handed them to the caucus chair, who added their names to the agenda until there was no more time.

 John Chiang (in glasses), running for governor

The caucus meeting was almost two hours long, so we had lots of time to watch the state’s political world pass by. All four Democratic candidates for governor—Gavin Newsome, John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, and L.A.’s own Antonio Villaraigosa—walked by us several times. Most of them were with just one or two companions, but Chiang surrounded himself with a large retinue of folks carrying signs. At one point, both Villaraigosa and Chiang entered our tiny caucus room, causing a big flurry as their followers tried to get inside, too. A convention organizer happened to walk by, just then, and was amazed at the overflow of people spilling out into the hallway. “We’ll have to assign you a bigger room next year!” she said excitedly. We nodded knowingly.

 Antonio Villaraigosa (right), facing right, with supporters holding signs

By the way, I asked the caucus staffer if the proceedings automatically stopped for big-name candidates and she said no—they would not be allowed to speak unless they had signed up in advance. We were outside the room and so couldn't see if they actually spoke or not. We did hear later, however, that the women’s caucus went crazy when congressmember Nancy Pelosi (who we had seen rush by earlier) unexpectedly entered the room. Big-name candidates do get noticed even if they don’t speak.

Other impressive candidates who caught our eye were state senator Ricardo Lara, who had a HUGE crowd following him and chanting (“Lara! Lara!”), and Katie Hill, congressional candidate from Santa Clarita/Palmdale, whose camera crew seemed to film every little thing she did. Everyone who walked by either wore a t-shirt or carried a sign promoting one candidate or other. Quite a show!

After my shift ended, I joined everyone else downstairs for the general session in Hall F. Speakers included Lupe Valdez, the first openly gay Latina running for Texas governor, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, and Pelosi. They were all received warmly with Pelosi getting a standing ovation. After a while, I decided to grab a quick snack at Starbuck’s and was shocked to hear jeers when I returned 20 minutes later. I did not recognize the speaker, but apparently not all Democratic candidates are created equal! He was followed by Ricardo Lara, whose supporters screamed and waved signs. For a moment there I thought I was at a national convention, watching delegates cheer for their favorite presidential nominee. So much excitement!

 Pelosi signs on every chair in the general session

There were far more candidates to see and hear, but I left the convention early so Tim and I could start heading home. Such a fascinating—and exhilarating—experience. I might just have to do it again next year . . .