California Rebuilding Democratic Bench

The Democratic Party is currently struggling with the question of who should be leading it heading into the future. Should they stick with known leaders, or is it time for fresh blood? Most notable in this power struggle are the questions of who should lead the Democrats in the House, and who should lead the Democratic National Committee. The Senate had largely decided their own leadership question before the election, since Harry Reid had already announced his retirement. The Senate leadership handoff that just happened had already been worked out months ago, and Senator Chuck Schumer will (starting in January) be known as Minority Leader Schumer for the next two years. Over on the House side, a fierce debate is taking place as to whether Nancy Pelosi should continue as the Democratic leader or whether someone younger might be a better option. The D.N.C. leadership may be the biggest fight of all, though, as multiple candidates have already thrown their hats in the ring.

In all these questions of leadership, some have noticed that the Democratic "bench" is pretty downright thin these days. Partly, this is Beltway-insider "conventional wisdom," since there are plenty of Democrats in the House and Senate who are young, committed, and eager to lead -- but, alas, their names are not on the insiders' lips when they gather at their cocktail parties. At the same time, it is indisputable that the House Democratic leadership is rather advanced in age, especially when compared to the young guns currently in charge of the Republicans. Even the lefty wing of the Democratic Party is best represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, neither one of whom is exactly a spring chicken.

The ultimate prize in this Beltway parlor game is, of course: "Who will be strongest to run for president in four (or eight, or twelve) years?" When taking this longer view (not only at the presidential level, but more generally, as: "Who will lead the Democrats in the future?"), California may be best positioned to serve as the Democratic bench. I say this not just because I happen to live there, but because of the momentous turnover churn that is currently taking place.

California's two current members of the United States Senate are Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. California's current governor is Jerry Brown. Barbara Boxer has served in the Senate since 1993, and will retire at the end of this year. Dianne Feinstein has served since 1992, but it is very likely that she will soon decide that her current term will be her last and announce she'll be stepping down in time for the 2018 midterm election. Brown will go down in history as "California's F.D.R.," since he will be the only governor to ever have served four terms. Future governors are limited to only two terms (Brown's earlier two terms in the 1970s and 1980s didn't count under the grandfather clause of the term-limit law), and Brown will finish his fourth term in two years. This means that within a two-year period three of the most powerful political offices in California will probably change hands. For the first time in a quarter-century, California will have two brand-new senators, as well as a new governor. All will be Democrats, unless a giant earthquake suddenly swallows San Francisco and Los Angeles.

One of these handoffs has already happened, since Boxer didn't run for re-election. And her replacement, Kamala Harris, is already being highly spoken of when Beltway denizens gather to speculate about the future of the Democratic Party. Since others are already having such fun speculating about her, though, I doubt I need to add anything to that conversation.

But don't sell the rest of the California bench short, either. Harris will have a two-year jump on the other two offices, it is true, but whomever wins them will also be worth consideration for higher office (or leadership position) as well. Since Dianne Feinstein has not actually announced her retirement yet, it's impossible to say who will jump in the race to replace her. Begin with the Democrats who didn't beat Harris, and speculate freely about others who might salivate at the prospect.

The most interesting prospect, for me at least, is the man who is quite likely to take the reins from Jerry Brown. Gavin Newsom is already Brown's lieutenant governor, and he is the clear favorite to win Brown's office in two years (unless Kamala Harris decides to challenge him). If he wins, it will give him executive experience running the sixth-largest economy in the world (measured against other nations, not states). The only real problem Newsom faces is the political calendar. After all, mounting a serious run for the presidency in 2020 would mean starting in early 2019 -- which would be Newsom's first year in office, should he win the gubernatorial race. California voters might not look too kindly on a new governor who immediately begins running for a higher office, in other words.

Newsom is an interesting character, who rose to prominence as mayor of San Francisco. He wasn't as ultra-liberal as some in the city by the Bay would have liked, and some of his political ideas were not very well received. He comes from a business background, but one that was initially financed by a member of the Getty family. He does have impressive political connections within the Democratic Party, though (his aunt was married to Nancy Pelosi's brother-in-law, for instance), and some of the ideas he championed have proven to be downright prophetic, especially when measured by the yardstick of bold leadership.

You may be wondering: "Where have I heard Newsom's name before?" The answer to that question is that he was the person responsible for San Francisco marrying gay couples for a 29-day period -- back in 2004. Newsom reportedly listened to George W. Bush's State of the Union speech that January and was incensed that Bush finished the speech praising the Defense of Marriage Act (which limited all marriage to heterosexual couples). Newsom acted immediately, blowing off a post-speech party hosted by Nancy Pelosi to phone his chief of staff and county clerk to ask what would be needed to marry gay people.

On February 12, two days short of Valentine's Day, the first gay couple was legally married in San Francisco's City Hall. The two women were 83 and 79 years old, and had been together 51 years. Five days later, 2,200 couples had been wed. By the time a court issued an injunction on March 11, over 4,000 legally-married gay couples existed in California.

Some may not remember it now, but this was an extremely radical step for Mayor Newsom to take. His own advisors warned he was committing political suicide. National Democrats were aghast, and some still credit Newsom's action with helping to re-elect George W. Bush. It was too much, too soon, most Democratic Party officials mournfully lamented. When Proposition 8 was put on the ballot (to deny gay marriage in California), Newsom's words were prominently featured in the "Yes on 8" advertising: "As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It's inevitable. This door's wide open now. It's going to happen, whether you like it or not." Many point to these ads as one big reason Proposition 8 won, in fact.

Newsom never backed down, and he was ultimately proven right. While throngs of more-timid Democrats clutched their handkerchiefs with worry, Newsom did what he thought was right, and never apologized for it. It took many, many years (too many, in fact) for all the rest of the Democratic Party to come around to Newsom's initial position. Even in the 2008 presidential election, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton had yet "evolved" to support marriage equality.

I must admit for full disclosure that while I wasn't blogging back then, I was also one of those cautioning that it was too much, too soon. I was wrong, and Newsom was right. If he hadn't pushed the issue when he did, it is likely it would have taken a lot longer to become reality on the national stage. His leadership quite likely shortened the timeline.

Marriage equality isn't the only issue Newsom has been out in front of, though. In 2013, Lieutenant Governor Newsom convened a "Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy" with the state's A.C..L.U., and after it issued its report in 2015, Newsom became one of the leaders of the movement to pass Proposition 64, which just legalized recreational marijuana in California. He not only lent his name to the effort, he actively campaigned for the measure as well.

This was the second time California has voted on recreational legalization (the first one failed). And nothing highlights the changing of the Democratic guard in the state quite so much as the fact that the person who led the "No" effort, both this year and back in 2010, was none other than Senator Dianne Feinstein. There's the past and the future in a nutshell, really.

Most Democrats are acting just as nervous and prone to swooning over legalizing marijuana as they were over legalizing gay marriage a few years ago. They are, to be blunt (no pun intended), afraid of the political risk in supporting the issue. They timidly wait for the voters to signal their acceptance before even getting involved. Which is not actual leadership, it bears mentioning. Recreational legalization was notably absent from the vast and detailed agenda Hillary Clinton just ran on, to cite the most prominent example.

Gavin Newsom is one of a handful of Democrats (there are others, who have been making notable progress reaching across the aisle in Congress, it should be noted) who have gotten out in front of this issue, and shown real leadership. Newsom, quite obviously, is not the type of politician who waits for the people to lead, and then meekly follows. He has shown he's willing to lay his own political career on the line to stand up for what he believes is right, on two of the biggest social and political fights of our times. So even though the political calendar may preclude a Newsom presidential run next time around, my guess is that eventually he is going to take a crack at the top job. And he'll have an impressive record of true leadership to run on.

Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris aren't the only two California Democrats who are about to deepen the Democratic Party's bench, either. Once Dianne Feinstein announces her retirement (whether this election cycle or the next), there will be another prominent national slot for an up-and-coming Democrat to fill.

So my advice to all of those Democrats crying in their beer over the thinness of their bench (during their oh-so-trendy Georgetown cocktail parties) is to look to California. We're about to shuffle off three of our old-guard politicians and replace them with some very impressive younger voices. You may not have heard their names very often yet, but you soon will -- that's my guess, at any rate.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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