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California May Be An Early Primary State Now, But It's Still Not Getting The Full Iowa Treatment

Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, waves after speaking during the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco, Saturday, June 1, 2019.

Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

It doesn’t happen often, but California was the center of the presidential race this weekend. Fourteen candidates addressed the state Democratic Party convention, and many of them also held other public events and raised money in the state.

But they didn’t spend much time talking about California.

Take, for example, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who opened her remarks by praising some of the Golden State’s blue policies. “It is so great to be in a state that has led the way on paid family leave, $15 minimum wage, worker protections and reproductive rights!” she said.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was quick to say he feels “right at home” in California, “because the spirit of this state is so much like the spirit of my campaign: new thinking, bold action, a focus on the future.”

And New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made sure the crowd knew his mother graduated from a Los Angeles high school and the University of Southern California. “This is a state that gave my family, a black family coming from Louisiana, a chance to make it,” he said.

But that’s pretty much all they said about California for the rest of their seven-minute speeches.

Even the state’s own senator, Kamala Harris, only threw in a token reference: “The thing I love about California Democrats — we are never afraid of a fight. We like a good fight. And we know right now we’ve got a fight on our hands.”

And California Rep. Eric Swalwell focused his speech on spreading his state’s values to other states.

By and large, the candidates kept their remarks focused on national issues — and, of course, President Trump.

Yes, the Golden State votes earlier this presidential campaign, with vote-by-mail ballots for its new March primary going out the day of the Iowa caucuses. So, candidates are campaigning publicly and doing more interviews. They’re not just coming here to raise money.

But California is still not getting the Iowa treatment.

“I didn’t hear anyone talk specifically about any issues going on in California,” said Carol Dahmen, a media strategist who worked for former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. “Like, ‘Hey, I understand that President Trump is potentially holding up money for wildfire survivors, and that’s not right. We need to make that right.’”

And that, she said, was a missed opportunity.

“When you have two dozen candidates, 14 of which are here today, someone could have really stood out and just said, ‘Hey, yeah, I understand some of the issues in California.’” Dahmen said.

“Nobody did that.”

Even though the convention in San Francisco was on Harris’ home turf, other candidates — in particular Buttigieg, Booker, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — seemed to draw more favorable receptions.

Former Vice President Joe Biden declined an invitation to speak, campaigning instead in Ohio. That didn’t stop several of his rivals from taking shots at him — even if they never mentioned his name.

President Trump “wins if we look like defenders of the system,” Buttigieg said. “He wins if we look like more of the same. He wins if we look like Washington. And so the riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe.”

“Some in D.C. think the only changes we can get are in tweaks and nudges,” Warren said. “Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a time of crisis. The time for small ideas is over."

And Booker argued that “beating Donald Trump is a must, but that is a floor, not a ceiling. We are bigger than that! We have greater ambition than that!”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper got booed when he told the convention crowd: “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer.” He drew even more boos when he said he backed universal health care with a public option but not Medicare for All.

Perhaps that’s why Biden, who’s leading in national polls, stayed away. But Dahmen says his absence won’t cost him in California.

“He’s the vice president, he has 100 percent name ID,” she said. “This is not his crowd, not his crowd at all.”

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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