SAN DIEGO — The rustle of activity caught the attention of even the most nonchalant of Democratic politicos waiting for new California Democratic Party chair Eric Bauman to welcome party delegates to their convention here. At the center of the hubbub was esteemed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, looking tired and frail but intently focused on each person asking a question or pressing a point. Not a convention regular, her very presence added to the star quality of her Senate seniority.
At the outer edges of the crowd, a gaggle of young women giggled as they strategized how to get a selfie with the legendary leader. Finally thrilled with their success, they wandered away to go endorse Feinstein’s younger, more progressive primary opponent, State Sen. Kevin de León. That Feinstein even got a primary challenge at a time when seniority in Washington, D.C., still holds a modicum of meaning astounded many establishment Democrats, including lesbian supporters Hilary Rosen, Yvette Martinez and Assemblymember Susan Eggman. Feinstein failing to receive the California Democratic Party (CDP) endorsement shocked the nation. Many political observers assumed it was a continuation of last year’s turmoil as populist Bernie Sanders supporters loudly tried to take over and remake the party in a much more progressive mold.
But that’s not what happened. In the time since assuming office of chair last year until the Feb. 23-25 convention, Bauman made such substantial changes to the internal mechanism of party governance—including gender parity, more decision-makers at the table and youth inclusion—the real focus of the 2018 convention was on arguing for particular candidates.
“We saw people go at each other’s throats at the 2017 convention due to the so-called ‘progressive vs. establishment’ divide,” Los Angeles Democratic Party chair Mark Gonzalez, 33, tells the Los Angeles Blade.
“This year, though, it seems that the delegates and activists have come to the realization that they have more in common than they have in conflict. Just by watching their interactions on social media and at Democratic Party events in the last year, it looked like people realized that while we may sometimes be opponents, we are never enemies.”
But times have changed. “The party has continuously evolved since Dianne Feinstein first sought endorsement from the Democratic Party. It’s changed with new energy and new blood, and a different generation of activists,” Gonzalez says. “A majority of delegates see Sen. Kevin de León as someone who could lead that charge of resistance [to President Donald Trump], representing the next generation of California’s elected Democrats.” And while Feinstein is still held in great respect, “the numbers show that the party is headed in a much more progressive direction” and Feinstein “needs to adapt to the changing winds.”
Feinstein has been campaigning vigorously while also pressing her signature issues such as gun control, particularly jump-starting a new assault weapons ban. In the past, Feinstein has called the National Rifle Association “venal” for standing in the way—gun violence is a personal issue. She discovered the body of her assassinated gay colleague San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 and a finger slipped into one of five bullet wounds while she checked for his pulse. She grasps the impact of mass shootings, most recently at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—but unlike House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, she has not called for #NoNRAMoney in political campaigns.
Pre-convention polling shows Feinstein well situated to win November’s general election, with or without the party’s endorsement. However, that may soon change. De León, a respected advocate of the DREAMers movement and author of two of California’s “sanctuary state” laws is leading the charge with Gov. Jerry Brown and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (who also failed to win a CDP endorsement) against a lawsuit brought March 6 by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Trump administration wants local law enforcement to work with ICE in deporting undocumented immigrants. Sessions claims ICE only targets criminals, but others, including legal residents, have been caught up in sweeps and treated as mere collateral damage. The state laws, with input from both former Attorney General Eric Holder and LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, were written to withstand constitutional scrutiny.
With no congressional action resolving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)—which Trump told the Latino Coalition’s Legislative Summit March 7 is being held up by Democrats—and “thoughts and prayers” but no action on gun violence, young people are taking action, themselves. They are inspired by the protests against the Vietnam War and, for LA’s Latino youth, the Chicano students who walked out of their high schools protesting racism and inadequate schools 50 years ago on March 1, 1968.
“Those young people helped launch the Chicano movement in Southern California and created a generation of leaders,” columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently.
Protests against gun violence are planned nationwide for March 14. There is a national “March For Our Lives” in Washington planned for March 24. Among the leaders of the Parkland students’ movement is bisexual Emma Gonzales who in the two weeks after the massacre that killed 17 students garnered more followers on Twitter (691,000) than the NRA (562,000).
Other protests are also expected when Trump visits San Diego to view samples of his proposed border Wall and then attends a Republican fundraiser in Los Angeles on March 21.
Reaching and registering the state’s approximately 10 million millennials is a key component of liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen America organization. “We really believe in millennials being integral, involved American citizens in our political process,” Steyer told the Sacramento Bee for a March 7 story.
“Millennials have voted at half the rate of other American citizens and they’re also the biggest age demographic. So the opportunity to make a difference is clearly gigantic.”
But while NextGen ads and street demonstrations catch the TV eye, the deeper story is being missed: there is a wave of young leadership and activism within the California Democratic Party that is utilizing technological outreach and will no doubt take advantage of California’s new law that automatically registers young people to vote when they get their driver’s license.
Just as the LGBT movement was integrated throughout the convention—from Bauman and his husband Michael Andraychak to LA Democratic Party chair Mark Gonzales to Stonewall Young Democrats Christopher Nikhil Bowen, Michael Colorge and Ari Ruiz to intersectional LGBT speakers on the convention stage—leadership of the Democratic youth movement was given its due at the convention.
Among the many young activists were: Danielle Shah Shon, 16, offered a stunning poem; Jenny Bach, 25, elected Secretary of the California Democratic Party Secretary, talked about her Vietnamese immigrant parents; and Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, 30, a gay Marine veteran elected president of the California Young Democrats, talked about his activism.
But young Democrats are active throughout the state, such as Crystal Araujo, a single mother who secured her law degree last year from the University of San Francisco School of Law. Araujo started her political activism at UCLA in 2009. She is now a member of the South Alameda County Young Democrats (SACYD), a group that attends each convention.
“This was an exciting convention for me, because it was my first to time as an appointed delegate so I was able to be involved in helping decided the Democratic slate to ensure issues important to millennials were being carried to legislative bodies,” Araujo told the Los Angeles Blade. “In addition, I was recently appointed as CYD Policy & Legislative Chair, a position I hope to utilize to strength the Young Dem voice and continue to advocate on issues important to us like student debt and discrimination. We cannot afford to stay silent or to be ignored and it is also important for us to be heard and set an example by mentoring and bringing the next generation of leaders forward.”
“As Young Dems, we are ready to roll up their sleeves and work together to solve the issues before us,” she continued. “My hope is that this November, the young vote will reach historic numbers and the party and politicians in office realize we are the NOW and not just the future.”
Some longtime politicos are excited by the change, such as former LA-based gay activist Wuzzy Spaulding. “For about 35 years, I was an activist fighting for social justice,” Spaulding told the Los Angeles Blade, until he realized he’d become “a dinosaur” and it was time to step aside.
“It is arrogant and insulting to suggest that young people do not and cannot have ideas better than our stale way of looking at things, especially when our stale way of looking at things produces nothing,” Spaulding said. “I am happy to have handed off the baton. I am thrilled with these kids in Florida and elsewhere. We will all be better off for their participation.”
Time will tell.