LOS ANGELES — Long-standing tensions between the Democratic Party’s moderate and liberal wings have ignited in California, where progressive activists are redirecting their anger over Donald Trump and congressional Republicans toward Democratic leaders at home.
Stoked by a contested race for state Democratic Party chair and the failure of a single-payer health care bill, activists are staging protests at the capitol. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon reported receiving death threats after shelving the health care legislation late last month, and security was tightened at the statehouse after activists disrupted a floor session last week.
The rancor, a spillover from the contentious Democratic presidential primary last year, is aggravating divisions in a state regarded nationally as a lodestar for the liberal cause. Establishment Democrats fear the rhetoric and appetite for new spending could go too far, jeopardizing the party’s across-the-board dominance of state politics.
All of it has taken on new significance as California embraces its role as the focal point of the anti-Trump resistance.
“We’re on the same team,” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, chairman of the Assembly’s progressive caucus. “We should not be fighting one another. We should argue with one another … It should not devolve into something where it could tear the party apart.”
California established itself as a fortress of the opposition immediately after Trump’s election, with Democrats advancing high-profile legislation to defy the new president on climate change and immigration.
But progressives who have long agitated for more spending on social services and for stricter environmental and campaign finance rules believed that they might seize the post-Trump moment for other causes, too. Despite victories on a range of issues here in recent years, liberal activists have fallen short in other areas, unsettling progressives across the country who view California as a state in which they should be racking up wins.
Progressives this year have continued to press Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, unsuccessfully, for a ban on hydraulic fracturing. Lawmakers proposed a “debt-free” college plan, only to settle for more modest measures to reduce the cost of higher education. And many progressives aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders bemoaned the narrow election of an establishment favorite, Eric Bauman, over their preferred candidate in the race for state Democratic Party chair.
Most recently, when Rendon announced that he would not allow a single-payer health care bill to advance through California’s lower house, tempers boiled over.
The California Nurses Association and other single-payer advocates descended on the Capitol, waving signs with Rendon’s name printed on a knife buried in the back of the California bear. Sanders himself admonished Rendon, and the nurses union said it planned to air radio ads targeting the Democratic speaker.
“Corporate Dems: Don’t underestimate grassroots taking action on #SinglePayer,” RoseAnn DeMoro, head of the nurses union, said on Twitter.
The episode left a deflating mark on the progressive movement’s ranks across the country.
“It’s more than a disappointment, watching how it plays out there in California,” said Donna Smith, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America. “For Democrats, for progressives, [health care] really encompasses everything that’s going on in the country at the moment. And California … is so critical, and California is this incubator of what happens in Democratic politics.”
Yet as progressives look west for inspiration — and to a raft of competitive House races in California in 2018 — there are signs that intra-party conflict may only intensify. Though California is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, it is also home to powerful moderate influences both in the electorate and in a party whose ties with business interests have deepened as the Republican Party has fallen to near irrelevancy here.
Even as crowds assemble almost weekly in Los Angeles and San Francisco to rail against Trump, ruling Democrats recall the pummeling that California and its liberal policies took amid the recession, when the state’s credit rating plummeted, Sacramento became immobilized by budget impasses and state finances invited comparisons to Greece.
Campaigning in the 2018 race for governor, John Chiang, the state treasurer, told labor officials in Orange County recently that on issues ranging from health care to immigration to climate change, “We’re trying to show President Trump a different America.”
But he also sounded a note of caution, informed by the lessons of a decade in statewide office: “If we don’t do this correctly, I think others are going to lose hope.”
Brown, asked about challenges holding to a political center amid fervent activism on the left, told POLITICO, “Look, you can always go too far. Trump’s obviously gone too far in one direction. It’s possible to go too far in the other direction.”
Still, the surge of progressive energy coursing through the party makes that a difficult argument to make. Though Hillary Clinton won the California primary last year, Sanders campaigned throughout the state for weeks, calling the West Coast “probably the most progressive part of America.”
Paul Song, a California physician and former chairman of the progressive Courage Campaign, said of establishment Democrats, “Whether it be single payer, whether it be [campaign finance] … whether it be now moving forward on environmental issues, I think it’s a much more energized, aggressive base that I don’t think they’ve ever faced before.”
The Democratic Party, he said, is “basically [having] a civil war among themselves.”
The division is apparent in the profile of rank-and-file Democrats, more than 40 percent of whom identify themselves as moderate or conservative, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“I think so much of the emphasis has been on, ‘We’re a blue state, we’re a deep blue state and so forth,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the poll. “The reality is that the Democratic Party doesn’t speak with one voice … The moderates hold a lot of sway.”
California has adopted a raft of progressive policies in recent years, including a gas tax increase, stricter greenhouse gas reduction measures and a bill to eventually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Rendon said such policies are “why we’re a beacon of hope for progressives throughout the United States and around the world … The way you do that is not through posturing, but through producing, and making sure that we’re focusing on policies that can actually be implemented to help people.”
Rendon said he wanted “a serious single payer bill to be presented to our house” but that what he received from the state Senate was “woefully incomplete,” with no funding mechanism and lingering questions about delivery of care.
But Rendon also nodded to the concerns of Democrats leery of over-extending.
“We’re still a big tent party, and we have folks within our Democratic caucus from throughout the state, really, who are Democrats, but who are moderate Democrats,” Rendon said. “And for us, it’s about making sure that we’re going to be able to create the architecture for plans that are actually going to get the support of our caucus.”
Jones-Sawyer, the progressive caucus chairman, said Assembly Democrats are moving beyond their differences and focusing on crafting a more complete health care bill.
As for the broader, intra-party feud, he said that for years Democrats “have been able to have our arguments within the family, on the floor and inside the party.”
He added, “We’ve just got to get better and understanding we’re all on the same team, and we probably need some rules of engagement on how we disagree with each other when we disagree.”