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Democratic presidential candidates call for change at California’s Democratic Party Convention

Fourteen presidential candidates spoke at the convention, and all but two called for a break from the past.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at the 2019 California Democratic Party Convention.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses the 2019 California Democratic Party Convention.
Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Democratic presidential hopefuls pitched themselves to primary voters in San Francisco, California on Saturday and Sunday with calls for the party to embrace big changes. Messages on gun control, immigration reform, income inequality, and Medicare-for-all were received warmly by California Democratic Party Convention delegates, many of whom are progressives.

Most of the party’s frontrunners appeared at the California Democratic Party Convention, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. In total, 14 candidates spoke, and one other, author Marianne Williamson, was present, but didn’t take the stage. Notably absent was former Vice President Joe Biden, who skipped the convention in favor of speaking at a Human Rights Campaign event in Ohio.

Some candidates, including Warren, took subtle digs at Biden in his absence — the Massachusetts senator pushed back against a claim the former vice president made early in his campaign that Republicans will have an “epiphany” after Donald Trump is no longer in the White House, and will actively work with Democrats on a bipartisan basis.

“Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses, but our country is in a time of crisis,” Warren said. “The time for small ideas is over.”

Warren went on to argue the problems of income inequality and healthcare debt are tied to the concentration of power among the wealthy, and then again proposed breaking up big tech companies. She also outlined a plan to raise taxes to pay for pre-K, free public college, Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal.

“Here’s the thing, when a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations came first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they’re telling you something very important — they are telling you that they will not fight for you,” she said.

On Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders earned a standing ovation after taking a more pointed jab Biden’s moderate stance.

“As you all know, there is a debate among presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen for whatever reason not to be in this room about the best way forward,” Sanders said. “Let me be as clear as I can be: in my view, we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign.”

Sanders also outlined an agenda of making tech companies pay more in taxes and passing Medicare-for-all.

“When it comes to health care, there is no middle ground,” he said. “When it comes to abortion, there is no middle ground. When it comes to mass shootings and the fact that 40,000 people were killed last year with guns, no middle ground.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, at 37 the youngest candidate in the field, pitched himself as a leader from a new generation who could disrupt the way Washington operates. Central to his message was the idea that economic change is possible, and that the middle class has been left behind.

“In these times, Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s,” Buttigieg said. “If we want to defeat this president and lead the country in a new direction, we must be ready to transform our economy and our democracy into something different, something better.”

Like Warren and Sanders, the mayor offered dig at Joe Biden; the former vice president’s supporters claim his more moderate approach makes him the most “electable” Democratic candidate. Buttigieg said this sort of thinking is misguided, however: “The riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe. There is no back to normal.”

Sen. Cory Booker echoed this sentiment in his speech on the convention floor, saying Democrats need to think about more than just defeating President Trump.

“Beating Donald Trump is a must, but that is a floor, not a ceiling,” Booker said. “We are bigger than that, we have greater ambitions than that.”

Beto O’Rourke also carefully proposed that Democrats share a vision of the future beyond a rejection of Trump. The former Texas Congress member switched between Spanish and English as he spent time speaking about the changes he would make to current immigration policy — he recently unveiled a plan to use executive power to reshape how the US handles immigration, particularly at the US-Mexico border.

“Never again will we put another child in another cage,” he said. “Nor will we deport another mother to a country she fled from in the first place.”

Many candidates tried to walk a fine line between criticizing Trump and sharing their own ideas, but Kamala Harris tied her calls for change to an explicit call to “begin impeachment proceedings.”

“Democrats, we have a fight on our hands,” Harris said. “It’s a fight for who we are as a people. It’s a fight for the highest ideals of our nation. With this president, it’s a fight for truth itself.”

At a candidate forum away from the convention, Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, spoke directly about Trump as well, and said he hoped his presidential run inspired other Latinx people not to be scared of the president.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve determined in this campaign that we’re just going to be fearless,” Castro said.

At the convention, he closed his address with a vision of himself moving into the White House. Castro said he saw himself “on the White House lawn, getting ready to say goodbye to Donald Trump and Melania Trump ... And right before he leaves, right before he walks away, I’m going to tell him, ‘Adios!’”

One candidate — former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — took a more moderate approach in his remarks, and suffered the crowd’s displeasure. The former governor was booed after he argued against socialism, saying, “We shouldn’t try to achieve universal coverage by removing private insurance from over 150 million Americans. We should not try to tackle climate change by guaranteeing every American a government job.”

Later, Hickenlooper seemed unfazed by the reception.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he told NPR after leaving the stage. “We know this is not a popular message with a certain portion of the Democratic Party, but I think it’s a message that’s got to be said.”

Sunday, former Maryland Congress member John Delaney faced the same fate as the former governor. Delaney used part of his speech to reject Medicare-for-all, and reportedly received “sustained boos.”

Hickenlooper was followed by current Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who avoided the crowd’s derision by returning to the message candidates delivered earlier.

“I am a governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values,” Inslee said to applause; his speech on embracing progressive ideas, particularly with respect to his signature issue of climate change, reportedly received a standing ovation.

California is becoming an important battleground state

The 2020 election marks a change for California — this election cycle, it will hold its Democratic primary on Super Tuesday in March, instead of in June. This change means that the state’s nearly 500 delegates have an opportunity to influence which candidates become frontrunners, and this is one reason why so many candidates took part in the state’s convention.

As Vox’s Li Zhou reported:

Previously, when its primary took place in June, California voters would often be among the last to go to the polls, sometimes doing so after the outcome of the Democratic nomination had effectively been decided. By moving its primary date — something any state has the power to do — California lawmakers have made the state a crucial stomping ground for Democrats seeking to establish an edge.

[California Secretary of State Alex] Padilla noted that the calendar shift also means candidates will need to highlight issues that are prioritized by California voters, an electorate that’s significantly more diverse than places like New Hampshire and Iowa.

Because of some quirks in the state’s electoral process, however, it’s not a given that the California primary will decisively pick a nominee. Specifically, the way delegates are divided in the state could mean that no candidate emerges as a runaway winner. What is certain, though, is that several top-tier candidates are clearly determined to give the state their best shot.

In a crowded primary field, winning even some of California’s delegates could give candidates a much-needed boost. Current polls show the state’s voters favoring Biden and Sanders; however, Harris’s years of connection to California voters are expected to give her a healthy share of the vote. The effect this weekend’s speeches had on voters is not yet known, but now that the candidates have had the opportunity to speak directly to the state’s top Democrats, polling could change in favor of the 14 candidates who attended the convention.