Normally, the California Democratic Party's executive board meetings are tame events that don't garner much notice. That wasn't the case this past weekend in Anaheim when a resolution by a newly formed grassroots group effectively split the party in two.
The Courage Campaign, which sees itself as a rallying force of sorts for the more progressive factions of the Democratic Party, spent two weeks spearheading a last-minute push to censure Sen. Dianne Feinstein over a series of controversial votes, and activists from throughout the state were prepared for a confrontation. [Full disclosure: This reporter did some contract work several weeks ago for the Courage Campaign.]
Ultimately, procedural rules kept the resolution from being considered, but the battle over the resolution exposed rifts within the party, with activists and party traditionalists going at it in the halls of the Anaheim Sheraton.
Frustration over Feinstein's voting record has been simmering within some Democratic organizations and reached a head earlier this month when she voted to confirm Judge Michael Mukasey as U.S. attorney general despite his refusal to condemn torture or the inhumane practice known as waterboarding. Feinstein was roundly criticized not only by state Democratic organizations but also by national groups like MoveOn.org, Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of America.
At last week's meeting, however, pushback from within the party was robust. Opponents of the censure positioned themselves in front of cameras and grabbed at signs supporting the resolution. There were even reports of shoving matches leading up to the hearings.
Ultimately, the censure's supporters never got the chance to formally present their resolution. John Hanna, chair of the Resolutions Committee, explained that because the censure was offered late, it required unanimous consent from committee members in order to be heard--and it was far from meeting that requirement.
'The censure resolution was objected to by most of the committee,' Hanna said.
Hanna defended the lack of official action, saying that while there was concern over Feinstein's recent votes, 'there was little enthusiasm for censure... and many members see the party's role as one of supporting our nominees, not attacking them.'
There were attempts to compromise, however. Hanna, Resolutions Committee member Brian Leubitz and Rules Committee Chair Garry Shay worked behind the scenes to, as Leubitz described, 'pass a resolution that would have sent a clear message that Sen. Feinstein needs to work harder to communicate with the Democratic Party and the base of our party.' But pressure from party officials and an uncompromising pro-censure group scuttled any efforts to pass a conciliatory resolution.
Immediately after the resolution's failure, supporters and opponents trumpeted the outcome as a victory. Eden James, managing director for the Courage Campaign, said the resolution 'definitely changed the conversation'--about the degree to which elected officials will be held accountable by the Democratic Party--'and the conversation will continue until Senator Feinstein is willing to engage in an open and direct dialogue with Democrats.'
Steven Maviglio, deputy chief of staff to state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, countered that the committee's lack of support for the resolution was a victory over the kind of activism that undermines the party's goals. 'Common sense prevailed over emotion,' he said. 'Party veterans were able to convince the über-left of the party that attacking a senator that's on their side 90 percent of the time played into the hands of the Republicans.'
Courage Campaign chair Rick Jacobs insisted that regardless of the fate of the resolution, Democrats critical of Feinstein sent an important message: 'An enormous amount of frustration with the senator, with recent votes in particular, boiled over within the system,' Jacobs said. 'Thirty-two thousand people signed a petition supporting censure. Several caucuses... probably representing about 40 percent of the party, endorsed censure.'
Jacobs also pointed out that the issue wasn't dead. The resolution will automatically be reconsidered at the next executive board meeting. Activists paint what happened last weekend as an opening salvo in a broader campaign to reform the way elected officials behave and the Democratic Party operates.
'What happens next is going to be more important,' Jacobs said. 'The message was delivered.... The entire weekend was taken up by this, even though the party structure used its rules to prevent it being discussed or voted on.
'Wouldn't you think [committee members] would want a vote?' Jacobs added. 'If you're so sure, then let it be heard--let people vote.'
Lucas O'Connor blogs at Calitics.com.