‘We are in the fight of our life.’ California Democratic Convention goers have MAGA on their minds

The legacy and shadow of former President Donald Trump loomed large over the California Democratic Party’s re-organizing convention over Memorial Day weekend.

The convention was for and about Democrats, but Trump, the GOP’s leading presidential candidate, was the backdrop for a weekend speeches, concerns and calls to action. The party has the former president, red states, congressional seats and MAGA on its mind.

The anti-Trump message and warnings were repeated in almost every corner of the Los Angeles gathering.

“We are in the fight of our life next November,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a U.S. Senate candidate, told the Women’s Caucus. “Literally democracy is on the line and all of our rights along with it. We must make sure that hateful man never goes near the Oval Office again.”

Fighting words and speeches

Gov. Gavin Newsom took less than 30 seconds to tell conservative states Texas and Florida to “eat their hearts out” as he celebrated the “free state of California.”

Adam Schiff called Trump an “orange-haired SOB.”

At Saturday’s general session, a slate of prominent California Democrats spoke briefly about the party’s convention theme for 2023: “Don’t Agonize, Organize.” Especially, they said, they need to take the House back from the Republican Party.

Rep. Ted Lieu spoke of pushing back against “the MAGA Republican craziness.” Rep. Linda Sanchez said that “Donald Trump is no longer in the White House but MAGA extremism is alive and well.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, said, “our constitution and our democracy are still at risk.”

And Speaker Emerita, former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, offered a serious, “grave warning” at Saturday’s general session about the Republican Party’s “recklessness and extremism” – especially where a debt ceiling deal was concerned.

As the former speaker delivered an impassioned speech to hundreds of Democratic delegates, House Speaker and fellow California Rep. Kevin McCarthy made a deal with President Joe Biden to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a potentially catastrophic default.

The Republican Party “pushed America to the brink of unprecedented default,” said Pelosi. “A default that would trigger economic Armageddon, killing jobs, erasing savings, plunging the economy into recession – and make no mistake, California would be hard hit.”

Candidates eye 2024

The anti-MAGA spiritmotivated many candidates as they bounced from caucus to caucus to give their campaign pitches.

Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, and Rep. Barbara Lee, who are all running to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, each had packaged message for each caucus they visited.

Schiff, who became a household name in the Democratic Party when he oversaw Trump’s two impeachment hearings, kept much of his message to why he’s the best candidate to push back against Trumpism and “the removal of rights” like abortion access.

“I have been proud to stand up to that bully, and I will stand up to any bully.”

Porter and Lee – both Democrats who veermore left than Schiff – also spoke of standing up to the increasingly “extreme” Republican Party, but Porter’s message continues to focus on corruption and corporate greed on both sides of the aisle and the overwhelming need to “shake up Washington.”

“There is no doubt that Washington caters to the desires of billionaires and corporate special interests while leaving our families behind,” she said at several of the weekend’s caucuses, with her whiteboard in tow.

“While Republicans have been the worst offenders, politicians in both parties have sometimes enabled this abuse. I am not afraid to shake up the status quo and do things differently.”

Lee, who received enormous applause from the Women’s Caucus on Friday night, took a different approach to promoting her progressive bonafides.

She spoke specifically of her experience as Black, progressive woman on the front lines of the fights for reproductive freedom and the Equal Rights Amendment. As co-chair of the Congressional Pro Choice Caucus, she is working to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a provision that bans federal funding for most abortions. She called it “so discriminatory to women, low-income women, and women of color.” (Lee has spoken openly about having a “back-alley abortion” in Mexico after she was raped, before abortion procedures were legal in the U..S.)

“I want you to look at what I have done as a progressive Black woman, both in the legislature and the Congress … it’s an indicator of what I will do in the future,” she said.

“It’s about time we elect a person with my perspective, and my lens, into the Senate.”

‘Break the glass ceiling’ in 2026 election

Beyond the Senate campaign, state candidates for far-off future elections made their pitches, too.

Eleni Kounalakis, the first woman elected as Califonia lieutenant governor, announced her launch for governor in April. She took her stump speech from caucus to caucus, acknowledging the long campaign ahead of her.

“This is a glass ceiling race,” she said. “And if you want to break the glass ceiling, you have to get a good running start.”

State Treasurer Fiona Ma made the rounds as well. The former assemblywoman and Board of Equalization member is running for Kounalakis’ current spot as Lt. Gov.

Attorney General Rob Bonta, who told the San Francisco Chronicle that he’s “seriously considering” a gubernatorial run last week, made his way through the caucuses, and talked about his experience being raised by activist parents and growing with the United Farm Workers.

“Right now, extremists are dismantling our rights and conservative mouthpieces are sowing the seeds of distrust and bigotry,” he said at Saturday’s general session. “Now more than ever, we must fight together.”

Presence of progressives

While Newsom talked about to Tupac’s “California Love,” Medicare For All activists protested his speech standing, yelling, and waving signs. Some members booed the governor for walking back his pledge to bring single-payer health care coverage to California. (He thanked them for exercising their right to free speech.)

The demonstration during Newsom’s speech was but one one symbol of the schism within the state Democratic Party.

At the Progressive Caucus on Friday night — Chairman Amar Shergill’s last before a new Chair takes over this year — newly-elected progressive legislators spoke about staying true to progressive values even when the party at large won’t, including a commitment not to take money from oil, gas, and pharmaceutical industries.

State Sen. Aisha Wahab, the only Muslim in the Senate and the first Afghan American woman ever elected to public office in the U.S., spoke at the caucus, along with Assemblymen Isaac Bryan and Ash Kalra. L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin and Controller Malia Cohen both spoke on behalf of Lee’s campaign.

Beyond Trump

Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost made an appearance also.

“We are a state of working class progressive people who believe in progressive values,” he said, despite being home to the other 2024 GOP contender, Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“The way that Democrats can win nationally and across the country in state legislators is by being for progressive policies,” he said. Frost was elected last November in the Orlando area, and at 25, he’s the first member of Gen Z to grace Congress.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, the first Indian American legislator elected in California’s history, spoke to the packed and raucous room about pushing back against the mainstream Democrats, and bristled at the idea that pushing the party left is “divisive.”

Progressive Democrats can’t simply focus on Trump, he said.

“I’m hearing that all progressive Democrats should be doing is challenging national Republicans and Trump, but that sounds to me that that’s a very low bar that’s on the ground,” he said. “The Democratic Party is a political party, not a social party, and it’s about damn time we act like it.”