California Democrats plunge into 'civil war'

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 intraparty 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.”

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