Editor's Notes

Outsiders, rock stars, and the Democratic Party old guard

> tredmond@sfbg.com

The delegates to the annual California Democratic Party convention began trickling into the San Diego Convention Center on April 27, and one of the first people they saw was Barbara Cummings. She had stationed herself about a block away from the entrance and was holding a big "Impeach Bush and Cheney" sign.

"It's wonderful," the San Diego activist told me. "The delegates all want their pictures taken with us. The tourists want pictures too."

Inside the convention hall, the grassroots sentiment was pretty similar. The black "impeach" lapel stickers were everywhere, hundreds of delegates wore black "impeach" T-shirts, and impeachment banners and signs flew everywhere.

Within official party circles, though, the mood was slightly different. Art Torres, the chair of the state party, told the press early on that he expected the war and impeachment to dominate the convention, but when I asked him if there was any disconnect between the party faithful calling for impeachment and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that wasn't an option, he simply said, "No. That's the Democratic Party." He added, "We see a distance between the grass roots and the leadership. That's not uncommon."

In many ways, that was the theme of this convention. The California Democratic Party is changing, in part driven by a new wave of young, Internet-savvy activists and bloggers who are practically screaming for respect. And the old guard is having a very hard time giving up control.

At the Resolutions Committee meeting April 27, Torres, a smooth operator with more than 30 years' experience in party politics, gave a textbook demonstration of how the powers that be keep the grass roots in line.

On one level, the resolutions that get passed at these conventions don't matter that much; they don't have any binding authority. But they do express the official position of the state party, can put pressure on Democratic elected officials - and sometimes highlight the schisms in the famously fractious organization.

In this case, activists had put forward a half-dozen reform proposals that all had the same issue at heart: control of state party money.

Howard Dean took on the old guard nationally when he decided to put money into party-building efforts and candidates in all 50 states; his fans in California want to see the state party follow that model in all 58 counties. They also want more transparency in how the money is handled.

The state party chair, of course, keeps a lot of his power and authority by controlling that cash, and the legislative leaders keep their powerful posts and ensure the loyalty of their troops in part by determining which Democrats get the resources in election years.

The resolutions called for an outside audit of party money and a formal 58-county strategy. Before a single supporter of those measures had a chance to speak, the chair of the Resolutions Committee turned the floor over to Torres - who suggested the whole thing be referred to a new task force, which he would appoint, for consideration at some time in the future. The committee chair quickly called for a motion and a vote, and the panel - also all appointed by Torres - swept every party-reform resolution right off the table.

The same pattern played out with impeachment; a strong grassroots effort became a weak final resolution. As one committee member told me, "Speaker Pelosi is against impeachment, so we can't really vote for it."

With the early California primary, the state convention was a big-time event. Seven presidential candidates showed up, more than had ever come to a state party event in history.

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