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State Democrats Gather In San Diego - from endorsements to tax measures

February 13, 2012 1:09 p.m.


Jess Durfee, chair, San Diego County Democratic Party

Thad Kousser, Associate Professor, Political Science, U-C San Diego

Related Story: Democratic Convention In San Diego Fires Up The Base For November


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, February 13th. Our top story on Midday Edition, Democrats from across the state gathered at the San Diego Convention Center over the weekend. Jerry Brown, attorney general Kamala Harris, and Gavin Newsom were among speakers hoping to impress delegates with the importance of the 2012 elections. Here to tell us why are my guests, Jess Durfee is chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party.

DURFEE: Thank you. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Thad Kousser is associate professor of political science at UCSD. The importance of this year's election was a theme sounded repeatedly at the convention.

DURFEE: One of the things is traditionally in presidential election cycle, California is thought of as sort of in the bag for the Democrats. What our focus was this weekend is to to emphasis that California is indeed a battleground state. There are a lot of important things happening within the state that we want Democrats and voters to be focusing on. Among those is the reelection of President Obama. But our six Congressional districts could have a significant impact on returning Nancy Pelosi.

KOUSSER: I think it's important as Jess said, for the races am also there are going to be some very important state fights that will set the tone over whether Democrats to move to 2/3 control of state assembly and the state Senate, and to pass a budget which they already have, but also to raise taxes which is denied to them unless they have a 2/3 majority.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jess, the state budget crisis was another theme throughout this weekend's convention. What about improving California's economy?

DURFEE: A lot of the discussion was around the fact that most likely we will be voting on some initiatives that in November that will be put there to address those issues. Governor Brown is putting forward an initiative to create more resources to support education. K-12 and the university system, and to help restore some of the funds that the state badly needs. So a lot of the focus was on rallying the troops to get them to understand the importance of working toward that, but also at the same time fighting and defending what we already have here. And defeating an initiative that's being put forward by basically millionaires who are trying to create corporate loopholes and take away the rights of working union families to be a part of the political dynamics here in California.

CAVANAUGH: Aren't there actually three proposals for tax initiatives, Jess? That's the governor's proposal, a proposal to raise taxes being promoted by the California teachers' association, there's an independent move by a citizen named Molly Hmonger to get an initiate itch on the ballot. There a concern that multiple proposals on the ballot would be a problem for Democrats?

DURFEE: Until we look at each one of them and take a position on those, we're going to be deciding which direction to go, but anything -- but at this point we have options. And that's a good thing for California voters. The voters do understand that there's a need for more revenue to support our schools, and basically those things provided by the State of California. So I'm confident as we move forward that there's going to be support for one or more of those as the November election comes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Thad, should that be a concern to Democrats that they may wind up with too many tax initiatives on the ballot?

KOUSSER: This was one of the big fights of a convention that had many civil wars, and there's this fight to clear the field for one particular tax measure, and the conventional wisdom is that when you've got thee measures, voters get confused, delay can't tell one from the other, and they vote no on all of them. In California, when you have public will to something, you often see multiple attempts to see it, and often one of them successful. Prop 13, there was a rival to prop 13, a similar initiate itch on the ballot, and one of them passed. Term limits passed. It is insurance reforms of the late '80s. Five of them on the ballot, one of them passed. Voters do seem to be able to sort things out. And they've not quite so clear a historical bases from the side that we need to clear the field.

CAVANAUGH: I read about Governor Brown's remarks at the convention here in San Diego. He didn't spend a lot of time talking about his tax initiative. Wouldn't this have been a perfect opportunity for the governor to really come on strong about his tax initiative? His proposal to raise taxes on millionaires and boost the sales tax and what it would do for California?

DURFEE: I think with the ad reps he had there, he was really trying to focus on his plans for governing the state. There's plenty of time between now and qualifying for the ballot for him to focus on getting the support he needs financially and through the volunteer base to get his initiative through in November. And he absolutely is working on that. There's no question that he's going to have enough support to get enough signatures to get that on the ballot.

KOUSSER: I think what he meant is he's the governor, his livals are private citizens, and a couple important unions, but he's the guy who has millions of millions of Californians who voted for him. He's the governor, the central figure in the Democratic Party. And if someone's going to muscle aside the other tax initiative, it's going to be him. And he needs to fight on a bigger stage than the convention.

CAVANAUGH: What stood out to you as some of the most interesting parts of the governor's speech speech to the delegates?

KOUSSER: Well, it wasn't a big speech. He spent about ten minutes. From what I read, he talked about some of his school reforms, but I think he knew that this is the choir, he needed to fet out of town and spent some time at a fundraiser for the ballot initiative. This tax increase and the pension restroom, that's his audience.

CAVANAUGH: What were the definitely of this convention?

KOUSSER: There were the people who survived the big fights over party endorsements. They're much more important this year than they have been in the past. We let a districting commission redraw districts no matter where incumbents are. They're fighting it out for the Democratic Party's endorsement. The top two primary where nobody is guaranteed a slot in November, the party to solidify the support behind one person in order to guarantee they get a general election combatant. So endorsements became more valuable, and everyone was fighting for them.

CAVANAUGH: Jess, we are talking about endorsements made by the democratic convention. It failed to give an endorsement in what some are saying is the most important congressional race.

DURFEE: The situation in that race is you have a sitting member of Congress, a Republican who basically has been planted into what is mostly a new district. We have two solid Democrats, both of them have a lot of potential, both of them have the ability to beat Brian Bilbray. I think when it came down to it, the delegates voting in that endorsement came to the conclusion that let's wait and see who comes out of the primary in June. The way the dynamics work in that situation, it's a guarantee that a Democrat will be against Brian Bilbray in November. We are more than happy to wait and see who that Democrat is going to be. When that happens we're going to be full force behind that person. Bilbray will find himself in the hot seat, and I think we're gonna be successful in November regardless of whether it's Lori SaldaÒa or Scott Peters.

CAVANAUGH: Was this a money issue or a resource issue, the idea that you didn't want to drop a lot of money before the primary?

DURFEE: I think that was in the moneyeds of a lot of the folks voting. Why should party money be spent on a primary when we can just wait and see which of those Democrats we want to be supporting in November?

CAVANAUGH: I read that Lori SaldaÒa lost by just one vote?

KOUSSER: Yeah, and she was of these two strong candidates, potentially the strongest one. She held a state office, an important local office. So she must be disappointed. But I think Jess is exactly right. This is one of those rare situations where the Democrats didn't Ned to clear the field. They can afford to let voters decide. I think that's what parties have traditionally done.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How has redistricting affected this year's endorsements, and how is it going to affect the election coming up?

DURFEE: Obviously that's huge. And just going back to the 52nd, one thing that's interesting about this district with the new lines that have been drawn, it's basically 1/3 democratic, 1/3 Republican, and 1/3 declined to state voters. I think one is a very good test to our Democrats to see which ones will appeal to that independent universe. That universe is going to determine who will win this race. And we need a candidate who can get that independent universe to defeat Brian Bilbray. Without that nation, we won't be able to defeat him. And the independent vote is going to be significant in a lot of races. There are fewer safe seats by either the Democrats or the Republicans around the state, and it's that independent vote that's going to be make a big difference.

CAVANAUGH: Thad, in speaking with political observers for the left few years, it's come up that there are so many safe seats, there were so safe seats in California's assembly districts that there was virtual no, no chance of any big movement one way or the other in the California assembly. And now I'm wondering, with redistricting, do Democrats have a shot at that 2/3 majority that you were talking about?

KOUSSER: Democrats do. The systems commission created more competitive seats than we saw in the last particular redistricting cycle. It's not as if there are battlegrounds up and down the state. Most Democrats live near -- other Republicans and it's hard not to draw safe seats. This puts 2/3 in play, and Democrats need to capture 2/3 in the assembly and the Senate to do anything. But the wild swings we've seen in American politics.

CAVANAUGH: We heard a lot at this convention about the idea of reestablishing control of the US Congress by the Democrats. Why dong the chances are for that?

KOUSSER: Again, it will depend on how could a democratic year this is. And in large part, that might have something to do with who the Republicans nominate. With Rick Santorum or Gingrich, there's a good shot at having weak Republican coattails and an independent victory. Also, we could see big democratic pickups in Texas or Republican solidification. There's a lot up in the air, but there could be I year where Nancy Pelosi returns to the speakership.

CAVANAUGH: What issues came out of this convention that you see as specifically important to San Diego?

DURFEE: Well, again, going back to the redistricting and now Howe that's going to change things, there were -- endorsement was a big part of this weekend. And a lot of focus was on the fact that we have opportunities to give Governor Brown a legislature where he can get things done. And we have this system where basically 1/3 of the legislature can shut everything down. If we can better fund our schools, students, teachers, families, will be positively impacted. And those are the things that are critical to every San Diegan.

CAVANAUGH: There were some occupy San Diego protestors outside the Convention Center. Was there any discussion of that movement going on inside the convention? Is there any chance that there is going to be some linkage between the occupy movement and the Democratic Party in California?

DURFEE: What I would say is the occupy movement has changed the conversation in politics. The ninety-nine% phrase that we hear all the time is really resonating throughout everyone's messaging. From both sides. You saw newt Gingrich attacking Mitt Romney over him being involved in destroying jobs. Those were typically things that Democrats would be saying about Republicans. There we have Republicans saying it about Republicans. And I think within -- there were a lot of messages from the stage, from the speakers about the messaging that occupy has brought to the table. I'm on the local occupy e-mail list, and it was interesting that they posted videos of several of the speeches from the stage talking about how these were the ones carrying the message of the occupy movement.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.

DURFEE: Thank you.

KOUSSER: Thank you Maureen.