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Christopher Caen Headshot

Crashing the Democratic Convention

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"El Sembrador," said the sign at the corner. This was soon followed by the HealthBullet, and then a fitness show. The light had almost changed before finally it popped up on the electronic billboard outside the Los Angeles Convention Center: "California Democratic Party - Party Convention." A religious ministry and a sales conference along with a political convention seemed to make sense.

My wife and I had flown to Los Angeles to take part in the annual gathering of the Democratic tribe here in the Golden State. A year earlier, Melissa and I were driving up to Sacramento to watch the local Republicans gather to swoon at the feet of Karl Rove. At that time, it was akin to heading into an armed camp in a very unwelcoming country.

The Democrats' gathering in California, though, had the happy, bouncy appearance of a sequel to The Big Chill. In a year where the governor's race is all but over before it even begins, what exactly was there to rally around for three days? This was the question that we were both pondering as we flew down to watch the action in person. I was most curious to see how the Democrats in attendance handled the fact that they are carrying a fourth touchdown lead in to the fourth quarter.

Having never covered a Democratic convention before, I dutifully had read up, and a theme kept popping up. Not to keep hammering on sports metaphors all day, but how to play with a lead? Do you keep slinging the ball downfield? Or do you go into your prevent defense and wait for Election Day to roll around?

That sign outside was the first tip how things were going to roll this weekend. For the prior two days I had been burning up the phone lines hooking up with various Southern Cali political operators to meet the locals and find out what was hot at the convention. I expected a response similar to that of the Republicans, but I forgot that this was a different beast. The Republicans last year desperately wanted to get their new messaging out, and they were tossing politicians at Melissa and me left and right.

If there is one person who is embodying the confidence and swagger of the California Democrats, it's Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Our first stop on the party circuit (this is a convention, after all) was Garcetti's kickoff party at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. One of the tricks Melissa and I have is to get close to a politician's staffers, get them liquored up, and then get all the dirty, dark secrets out of them. And given that the open bar had a gigantic tequila flight on one side, our odds were looking pretty good.

Except for one problem. They love the guy. And many of them have been with him through multiple campaigns, some all the way back to his early days as a member of the Los Angeles City Council. The word "loyalty" came up multiple times. Jeff Millman, who ran his mayoral campaign, is now his communications lead. His people stick around.

When Garcetti bounded onto the stage to (of course) the Randy Newman song "I Love L.A.," the crowd lost it. Garcetti was wearing a fleece jacket and no tie and immediately got to it. It was a brief but wildly entertaining ride through the brain of the California Democratic Party, and in a few short minutes he managed to embody everything that people love about the Democrats in these parts, as well as what makes others pull their hair out.

"Los Angeles is on fire! California is on fire!" he yelled out to the adoring crowd. And then not missing a beat, he started hitting every chapter of the Democratic playbook. "This is about reclaiming what the American dream is about! This is about the soul of this country!" The crowd roared once more as Garcetti played perfect, error-free football. This is stuff you could trot out at any convention, for any political party, and have people on their feet.

And then he rolled into the hair-pulling part. The one thing that makes Republicans downright apoplectic is the cozy relationship between the unions and the Democrats. Garcetti waded in chanting, "Organize! Organize! Organize! This is about the dock workers and union truckers and the labor trades. This is about the working men and women who put forward this nation's promise." This mans knows how to run the playbook no matter what the score. He finally waved to the crowd, told everyone that the secret to surviving the evening was "one tequila, one coffee," and then bounded up onto the stage to get his picture taken with the models from the FIDM.

It was a picture-perfect performance, and one that gave me no hope for the weekend. We found some fellow San Franciscans and decided to head over to the Bonaventure Hotel, where many of our political friends were holding down one end of the bar. When we got there the pack of political animals suddenly changed the tenor of the night.

We talked into the wee hours of the morning. Many of the current local campaigns were represented. They are tough Democrat-on-Democrat battles, such as the battle over Henry Waxman's old seat. Wendy Greuel and Ted Lieu are waging a fight that is usually reserved for national races, with the fundraising and acrimony to match. Each endorsement is fought over like the last rose from The Bachelor, and the nerds at the bar were keeping a close eye on the statistics -- like the fact that Antonio Villaraigosa endorsed Greuel a whole five days after she announced her candidacy. Was that a good or bad sign?

In a way, this battle is splitting the Democratic party in a way that the Republicans never could. I suddenly started to wonder if there was something more subtle going on. The "top-two" system of political races appears to be making Democrats battle over endorsements and money to last all the way through to November. Maybe what I was seeing was a prevent defense focused not on the Republicans but within their own party. Maybe it wasn't the fourth quarter after all, and just maybe both teams have a D on their jerseys.