“Classic Activism Versus Power Brokers”: Bernie Delegates Grab Power in California, Seeking to Shape a Biden Presidency

When Sanders delegates first started their organizing effort, the California governor was widely viewed as the expectant heir to the chair. “Everybody I talked to had the assumption that Gavin Newsom would be the chair of the delegation,” Norman Solomon, a Sanders delegate and the national director of RootsAction.org, told me. “It was seen like a done deal.” But as the effort continued, the numbers started to shift, largely driven—Solomon explained—by younger delegates. “This was sort of a classic activism versus power brokers. This is really what it was. It was the grassroots activists who knew that we had the underground wind at our backs,” he continued.

“Certainly if Gavin would have put up that fight that would be out the window,” Bernal added, noting the California governor’s “graciousness” in stepping aside.

Shortly after the cochair decision was announced over the weekend, Newsom praised the choice on Twitter. “Never been a more urgent election—and CA Democrats have never been more energized, united and ready to elect our next President,” he wrote. “At this moment in history, I’m proud that our Delegation will be chaired by those who reflect the diversity and dynamism of our great stcate.” A source familiar with the dynamics said Newsom angled behind the scenes to hold onto the position. But a spokesperson for Newsom dismissed the notion that there was a power struggle at all; the position wasn’t even on his radar.

“[Governor] Newsom is busy leading us through the pandemic and related massive economic challenges, plus the reckoning on structural racism,” Dan Newman, a political spokesman for Newsom, told me. “His hands are beyond full with governing.” Newman noted that the governor’s office also “proactively suggested Barbara Lee be added to a unity slate that represents and reflects the nation’s most diverse state.” In a statement, Congresswoman Lee said that she had been contacted by Newsom’s team last week about the position. “He recognizes this historic moment we are in and wanted to ensure a slate that reflects the diversity of California,” Lee said of the governor. “I am honored to serve with two extraordinary cochairs and look forward to representing the most progressive, diverse, and enlightened state in the union. We all know what is at stake in this election, and Democrats are united in this fight.”

Within the Democratic Party, Newsom is hardly seen as a moderate. But much like how Nancy Pelosi, a self-described San Francisco progressive, is now seen as out of step with the left flank of her party, activists in California are frustrated that key planks of the progressive platform such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal are not yet a reality in the deep-blue state. During the presidential primary, Newsom endorsed California senator Kamala Harris, and has since thrown his weight behind Biden.
Yet notably for Newsom, RoseAnn DeMoro, the former head of the nurses’ union told The Atlantic earlier this year that she saw the young California governor as “Sanders’s heir apparent.” She added to the outlet, “They won’t be able to portray Gavin as an outsider in the way they try to do other progressives.”

But it is clear that the ground is shifting under the Democratic Party. “The future history inside the democratic party and in the country will be made below the conventional political radar and below the routine media capacity to see it coming,” Solomon said. “It’s that tipping point I believe that we may be approaching. And if California is a bellwether, then we’re a potential tipping point where there’s a sort of a delayed effect. I would say that people in high elective office in general, they’re often literally the last to know that social movements are going to shake the ground that they stand on.”

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