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At convention in L.A., Democrats are warned against complacency

Fissures appear on the environmental front as the party chairman exhorts the faithful to work toward victory in local and congressional races.

March 08, 2014|By Seema Mehta, Michael Finnegan and Jean Merl
  • Cindy Asner, left, and Leah Herzberg -- who oppose the oil extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- hold up signs as Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the California Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.
Cindy Asner, left, and Leah Herzberg -- who oppose the oil extraction method… (Cheryl A. Guerrero, Los…)

California Democrats gathered Saturday to celebrate their dominance in state politics, buoyant about their prospects in this year's elections.

But the party's annual convention showed potential minefields for a group that appears to be at the peak of its power. In particular, there were fears that Democratic voters could be complacent in November, along with fissures on a critical environmental issue and a series of endorsement battles that could presage significant internal fights in California's changed electoral landscape.

The environmental issue, fracking, shot to center stage at the downtown Los Angeles gathering. A wealthy new political force vowed to launch an effort to regulate the controversial oil-extraction practice, and Gov. Jerry Brown faced a demonstration on the issue as he gave his first major speech since announcing that he would seek reelection.

Energetically taking credit for righting the state's financial ship and other accomplishments, he was drowned out by scores of anti-fracking advocates chanting and waving signs that read "Another Democrat against fracking."

"All you guys like to make noise," he said at one point, trying to quiet the protesters. "Just listen a moment."

Although Brown signed legislation last year imposing regulations on fracking, in which chemicals, sand and water are injected deep into the ground to release oil and gas, the governor has irked many environmentalists by not supporting a ban on the practice.

Opponents say fracking pollutes groundwater and triggers earthquakes.

Brown's stance on fracking fits his decades-long pattern of confounding critics who try to cast him as too liberal. But it could put him at odds with a new political player who has emerged as a national force on climate change.

A few hours after Brown's remarks, Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, who has said he plans to spend at least $100 million this year against candidates who oppose efforts to curb global warming, announced that he would make a legislative push to forbid fracking in California unless approved by two-thirds of voters in counties where it is proposed.

"After all, when it comes to the health and safety of our local communities, the burden of proof should be on the oil companies, not the other way around," Steyer told the assembled Democrats, also calling for oil companies to pay an extraction tax.

In addition, he said, California should develop strict fracking standards.

National Democrats, including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is eyeing a 2016 presidential bid, and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising star in the party, also addressed delegates Saturday — a reflection of the state's influential donors.

The overall mood of the conference was celebratory: Democrats hold all statewide offices and large majorities in the Legislature. The state Republican Party has historically low voter registration and is having trouble fielding credible candidates for some offices this year.

State Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, who many believed could be the most vulnerable Democrat on the statewide ballot, appears to be facing token opposition.

"People were saying this was a failed state — that was only a couple years ago," Brown told the group, recalling that some pundits likened the state's economy to that of Greece.

"The fact is, California is back. We got a million new jobs, and this is still a beacon for the whole world!" Brown said.

But party Chairman John Burton cautioned delegates not to grow complacent.

"We have a lot of work to do," Burton told hundreds of people at a reception Friday evening on the pool terrace of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.

He mentioned local races, congressional contests and legislative elections. "And that's going to take each and every one of us to get out and work," he said.

Democrats are trying to preserve their two-thirds supermajority in the state Assembly and regain the one they recently lost in the Senate when two lawmakers in trouble with the law took leaves of absence.

The convention featured lively endorsement battles for state controller and secretary of state, as well as nine congressional and legislative seats. The party's nod can serve as a guide for voters, especially in down-ballot campaigns that can garner little attention and may feature candidates unfamiliar to them.

Candidates had small armies of young volunteers waving signs, handing out campaign stickers and chanting their names.

Assembly Speaker John Pérez of Los Angeles, who is running for controller, hosted a "taco truck throwdown" outside the Convention Center on Saturday afternoon. State Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, a candidate for secretary of state, helped host a party at the Conga Room on Friday night. Volunteers for controller candidate Betty Yee, who sits on the state Board of Equalization, distributed apple pecan bars with her name on the wrappers.

As they crisscrossed the hotel courting voters, state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, who is also running for secretary of state, and Padilla exchanged a quick handshake when they ran into each other en route to caucus meetings.

"Gotta keep moving," Padilla said before rushing off.

Endorsement voting took place Saturday. Official results will be announced Sunday.

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