San Diego Surprises: A Report on the 2018 California Democratic Party Convention

By Lenny Siegel

This past weekend (February 23-25, 2018) I attended the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego. The convention theme was “California: The Big Blue Beacon of Hope,” meaning that the California Democratic Party is the focal point of national resistance to the policies and actions of Donald Trump and his Republican allies. Indeed, convention participants were united against Trump, but they were far from united as to who can best lead the national opposition and implement progressive policies in the Golden State.

As background, I was elected to a two-year term as a delegate at the January, 2017 caucus for Assembly District 24. I attended the May 2017 convention in Sacramento. At that meeting, establishment candidate Eric Bauman narrowly bested Kimberly Ellis in the vote for state party chair. At the 2018 convention, a handful of local caucuses voted whether to endorse candidates for Congress, Assembly, and State Senate, but the focus was on the statewide races.

Press coverage has called the convention outcome a move to the Left. Indeed, just about every candidate called himself or herself a progressive, including Dianne Feinstein. But I think we have to be careful not to accept the one-dimensional spectrum model of American politics. The 2016 Presidential campaign demonstrated that the left-right metric is outdated, and I find locally in Mountain View that people care deeply about issues that don’t fit that model.

And we also have to be careful not to define people by past intra-party battles. Clinton and Sanders supporters joined each other in supporting candidates in opposition to other Clinton and Sanders supporters. Similarly, last year’s Ellis vs. Bauman battle did not seem to impact this year’s endorsement votes.

Voting took place after each candidate had a chance to speak to the plenary session. Many were also able to visit a series of caucuses organized around issues and interest groups. I was struck however, by the seeming absence of identity politics. Candidates drew support primarily based on their political records and perspectives, not their ethnic or religious background, gender, or sexual orientation. Endorsements by big-name party leaders were noticed, but they by no means determined the outcome.

The hallways leading to the delegates’ voting room were crowded with spirited activists from all the different campaigns. Clusters of supporters of candidates for both major and minor offices held up signs and shouted their heroes names in unison. In fact, with overlapping chants it was often difficult to hear which San Diego Surprises 2 February 26, 2018 candidates were favored. Well-known party leaders such as Gavin Newsom and Kevin De Leon worked the line, shaking hands and taking selfies with delegates.

U.S. Senate

The biggest surprise was the endorsement vote for U.S. Senate. State Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin De Leon challenged former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who has been a fixture in the U.S. Senate since 1992. In the weeks leading up to the convention, the underfunded De Leon criss-crossed the state, meeting with local Democratic activists, including our local Bayshore Progressive Democrats. He was initially greeted with skepticism, because he is a career politician, but his stances on key issues distinguished him from Feinstein. He supports Medicare for All; he opposed the Iraq War and expanded electronic surveillance. He authored the legislation to make California a “Sanctuary State” and is moving California toward 100% carbon-free electrical energy. His floor speech on Saturday rapidly touched most of the issue that California Democrats care about.

Feinstein, on the other hand, focused on her long-time advocacy of banning assault weapons. Just about everyone in the room supported and respected those efforts, but it wasn’t enough to re-assure the delegates. When the nearly 2800 ballots were counted, De Leon unexpectedly won 54% and Feinstein 37%. While it would have taken 60% to earn official state party endorsement, De Leon’s strong showing sets the stage for a fierce two-way battle in both the June Primary and November general election. If as expected they both outscore the leading Republican in the primary, they will face each other in a two-way race in November.


Going into the convention, another former San Francisco Mayor, Gavin Newsom, appeared to have the funding and name recognition to give him a chance of obtaining the 60% support needed for official endorsement. His recent speeches have sounded very progressive, and he even won endorsement from the California Nurses Association in exchange for a promise to support SB562, California’s singlepayer health care bill. But a lot of delegates were mistrustful of Newsom’s progressive credentials, and they split their support among state Treasurer John Chiang—whose strong plenary speech appeared to win votes—and former Superintendent of Public Instructions Delaine Eastin. Newsom came out in front, but with 39% he was far from gaining Party endorsement. Chiang got 30%, and Eastin collected 20%. This result has challenged the inevitability of Newsom’s election, but as other candidates gain name recognition he may still prevail because progressive activists are split. Former Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa ran a poor fourth, with only 9% of the vote.

Lieutenant Governor

The contest for Lieutenant Government pitted former Ambassador to Hungary and Clinton fund-raiser Eleni Kounalakis, from San Francisco, against State Senator Ed Hernandez, a Doctor of Optometry from the San Gabriel Valley. Both ran as progressives, and they virtually tied in the vote, with Hernandez winning 42% and Kounalakis 41%.

State Attorney General

The other major surprise was the weak showing of appointed incumbent Attorney General Xavier Becerra. I’ve regarded him highly for his thus-far successful legal challenges to the Trump Administration on critical issues such as DACA (the Dreamers) and birth control. However, many progressives have been promoting state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones for his corporate-free campaign and opposition to the death penalty. Becerra’s speech focused narrowly on his challenges to Trump. Jones criticized Becerra for not challenging Trump sooner, and he touched on a wide range of issues. Jones almost won the party endorsement with 56% of the vote, compared 42% for Becerra.


California currently has 53 Democrats and 14 Republicans in the House of Representatives. Party and grassroots organizations hoping to “flip the House” are counting ou Democrats winning at least the seven Republican districts that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 general election. Many Democrats have enthusiastically announced their candidacies, but that has created what Bauman called an “overpopulation problem.” So many Democrats are running in some districts that they may split the growing Democratic vote and allow two Republicans to contest those seats in November. 

The state Party and leaders of the Democratic Congressional delegation are trying to winnow the field, but they have to be careful not to look like undemocratic party bosses. Each district has to be evaluated in its own right, but in districts currently held by Republicans this year I personally am willing to accept any Democrat over the best Democrat. Flipping the House is our best chance to legislatively check the Trump Administration’s reactionary policies and actions.

Rent Control

On Saturday morning tenant activists from throughout California staged a rally just outside the convention hall calling for the repeal of the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, state legislation that drastically limits cities’ abilities to stabilize rents. Among other features, Costa-Hawkins requires “vacancy decontrol,” which means that landlords have the ability to raise rents, without limit, on new apartment tenants. After the rally they marched through the Convention Center hallways, chanting and holding up signs saying, “The rent is too damn high.” The only two major candidates who spoke at the rally, endorsing the repeal campaign, were Kevin De Leon and Delaine Eastin.


I left San Diego optimistic that California Democrats, despite their internal differences, will continue to resist the Trumpublican agenda. Nancy Pelosi’s supporters distributed a poster showing her as Rosie the Riveter. The slogan at the bottom read, “Don’t Agonize, Organize!” When I first saw it, I bristled at the perversion of the Joe Hill aphorism, “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” But in retrospect I believe the new version accurately captures the mood of California Democrats of all stripes. At the top, the poster asserted, “We can do it!”