Remember last year, when I detailed the bitter battle between then-Assemblyman Jim Beall and his former Assembly-mate Joe Coto in their race for the State Senate in District 15?
To recap: The 2011 redistricting process left Mr. Beall with a distinct electoral advantage over Mr. Coto. The former had represented much of the district over three decades in public office, and the latter had seen his primary voting bloc — Latinos in East San Jose—carved up between two Senate districts. Pundits opined that Mr. Beall could win the race without spending a dime.
Of course, Mr. Beall spent many dimes, primarily attacking Mr. Coto with a barrage of hit pieces, most of which were fair, but one of which could generously be called “insensitive.” Occasionally, Mr. Beall had something positive to say about himself, like how he built the Highway 85 extension with his bare hands and a glue stick, which amazingly isn’t true. But for the most part, it was a bitter campaign of trash talk—from both sides.
The bitterness extended beyond the field of play to the sidelines of party politics. Local Democrats flocked to one team or the other based on personal allegiances. Mr. Beall ended up securing the California Democratic Party’s endorsement after two attempts, but the fight left frayed nerves and fractured friendships in its wake.
As predicted, Mr. Beall won at the ballot box by a wide margin, and in any normal race, that would have been the end of the story, and this column…
Fast forward to last weekend, when California Democrats gathered at caucuses in every Assembly District across the state to elect delegates to the next two annual state conventions. In years past, these were genteel affairs, attended by only the most stalwart activists. In recent years, as career politicians have come to understand the importance of the delegate system as a powerful tool for winning endorsements in state and federal races, the caucuses have become chaotic chamber plays.
That was certainly the case in Assembly District 28, currently represented by Democrat Paul Fong. It’s no secret that Campbell Mayor and Fong staffer Evan Low is planning a 2014 run for the seat soon to be vacated by his boss due to term limits. It’s also no secret that Low supported Joe Coto in the SD15 race. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Senator Beall was not happy about that. But rather than let sleeping dogs lie, he chose to play sore winner and seek revenge in true political geek fashion.
When Mr. Low endorsed a slate of respected activists running in Sunday’s caucus, aiming to shore up support for an endorsement vote at the 2014 CDP convention, Senator Beall asked some friends to form a slate in opposition and threw his support behind them. Together, the Beall and Low contingents brought hundreds of supporters to Sunday’s caucus at the Campbell Community Center, where they stood in the bitter winter cold for up to two hours, waiting to vote while being bombarded with slate fliers, handshakes, coffee and homemade cookies.
In the end, after dozens were turned away due to ineligibility and candidates waited patiently for an hour and a half while ballots were counted, the two slates split the delegate seats. Whether this will be enough to make a difference in next year’s endorsement battle is anyone’s guess. But the delegate war triggers all sorts of intriguing questions: Why would Senator Beall seek revenge after winning his race in a landslide by picking a fight with one of the most popular elected officials in Silicon Valley? And who’s next on his hit list?
More importantly: What can Democrats hope to gain from these personal squabbles that deprive us of a more inspiring dialogue on the issues and ideas that define our times? The answer is simple: Nothing.
In order to inspire a new generation of leaders to take up the mantel of Democratic ideals and stem the current shift to the middle, we must divorce ourselves from the Chicago-style kneecapping of a bygone era and embrace a new party based on trust, respect and true leadership. Our elected leaders should take the first steps.
Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San Jose. He served as an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party from 2009-2012.