Reporting from Sacramento — Four months into Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, state Democrats have tumbled to a harsh reality. They control the governor's office and both houses of the state Legislature, and they hugely outnumber Republicans in voter registration. But it's not enough to accomplish their agenda.
The current budget mess — in which a few Republicans are blocking Democratic efforts to resolve the budget deficit on their own terms — is motivation enough for a renewed Democratic push into areas that traditionally have gone Republican. The matter came up again and again at the weekend's state Democratic convention, as party leaders tried to persuade Democrats not to rest on their recent victories.
"We need to create a mountain of pressure on Republicans by going into their districts and engaging their voters," Assembly Speaker John Pérez of Los Angeles told several thousand delegates and supporters gathered in Sacramento this weekend, explaining that in the short term that pressure could flip Republican votes that the party needs to advance its plan for solving the budget gap.
"It's absolutely clear the only permanent solution for California's problems is to elect a two-thirds majority of Democrats in each house of the Legislature. That work must begin today."
The prodding of delegates from Pérez and other state leaders to get out and work stood in stark contrast to the celebratory mood at the Sacramento Convention Center — where at one point Sunday, party Chairman John Burton shimmied on stage with other activists to Right Said Fred's song "I'm Too Sexy." There was much self-congratulation throughout the three-day event about the party's feat of stopping 2010's national Republican surge at the state line.
"Look at what we did," Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in her speech Saturday. "Because of the work of everyone here, we won an entire sweep of all constitutional offices in California."
At the same time, Pérez, Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom tried to steer the conversation back to the party's current struggles.
Brown has been mired in stalemate in Sacramento as he has tried to build support for his plan to close the remaining $15-billion budget gap by asking voters to extend sales, vehicle and income tax increases that will expire July 1. Limited by his campaign promise not to raise taxes without voter approval, Brown has so far been unable to persuade a few necessary Republicans to put the tax extensions on a special election ballot. (Democrats at present are just shy of the two-thirds vote needed on budget matters.)
Many Democrats say they are hopeful that voters will simply blame Republicans for holding out on a proposal to put tax extensions before the voters. But some say Brown may need to be more aggressive in explaining the alternative.
"Personalizing what an all-cuts budget means is the thing that has to be done at some point, and he may have to call out individual Republicans and ask their constituents to ask them why they won't cooperate on a solution," said one Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to avoid openly criticizing the administration's tactics.
Brown canceled his plans to speak to the Democratic gathering Sunday after undergoing an outpatient procedure Friday to remove basal carcinoma cells from a growth on the side of his nose. Without their star speaker, organizers spent Sunday plodding through routine party business including the passage of resolutions to support collective bargaining rights, Planned Parenthood and oceans.
But even in Brown's absence, many of the speeches from the party's top leaders centered on reminding party activists that they have unfinished business.
"At the end of the day, folks hired us to do a job, not just to be in power," Newsom said Saturday. "We have got to get back in the how business. We have to produce results."
Harris said an "extreme minority" was stopping Democrats from accomplishing their goals in Sacramento. She warned against complacency on those state imperatives and the advancement of President Obama's agenda in Washington.
"I don't know about you, but I'm tired of playing defense. I say it's time to play offense," Harris said. "It's time to stop making apologies and start making progress. It's time to stand up for our basic principles, to say yes to healthcare, yes for the freedom and individuals' right to marry, yes to workers who collectively bargain, yes for a woman to make a choice for her own body, and yes to a path to citizenship for immigrants in this country."
"It's time. It's time," she said, as the audience rose to their feet and roared. "It's time to stand up for our principles and what we believe in. And California Democrats, let's not throw up our hands. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work."
Pérez urged delegates to immediately begin making phone calls for the special election Tuesday to fill a vacant Sacramento-area Assembly seat, and not to let up until November 2012. He asked delegates to rededicate themselves to making California a place "where everyone can come and have a chance to succeed."
Winning is the easy part, Pérez said: "Governing these days is much more difficult."