Democratic Primary Wars

Earlier this month, I attended my fourth California Democratic Party Convention as an elected delegate to the State Central Committee (or DSCC). If I tried to explain how CDP functions, I’d blow my word limit, and you’d still be confused. So instead, I’ll direct you to this fun and informative video.

At its core, the DSCC exists to set a platform for California Democrats and endorse candidates for state and federal offices. Candidates aggressively seek the party’s stamp of approval because it means financial and volunteer support from various party factions—labor unions, environmentalists, equal rights groups, etc.—and the chance to position themselves as the best choice for Democratic primary voters.

Primary endorsement contests generally amount to two formerly cordial Democrats nitpicking their respective records to death. Ideally, these squabbles would be resolved at the local level, but invariably, DSCC delegates are treated to gauntlets of campaign hacks chanting and waving signs, lobbying that borders on harassment, and piles of campaign cash expended on what amounts to infighting.

The Citizens Redistricting Commission— created by voters in 2008 and revised in 2010—threw a twist into this year’s process by dramatically shifting legislative district lines across the state without regard for incumbents or party strength. In some areas, incumbents of the same party were drawn into the same turf, triggering a boon for political consultants and realtors and a nightmare for party cognoscenti.

The top-two, open primary—see: Prop 14 (2008)—added another wrinkle by making it possible for two Dems to duke it out in June only to reprise the same fight in November in districts where no viable candidate emerges from another party.

Because nobody truly knows what to expect when voters begin casting ballots, this year’s “Dem-on-Dem” endorsement races became knock-down, drag-out fights for any shred of superiority, complete with mud-slinging hit pieces and ballot shenanigans.

At the local level, current Assemblyman Jim Beall, Jr., is pitted against former Assemblyman Joe Coto in the new 15th State Senate District, which stretches across the valley from Saratoga to Alum Rock.

Personally, I prefer to stay out of Dem-on-Dem races unless they involve family members, close personal friends, or candidates who have absolutely no business running. This is especially true when I know and like both candidates and have little interest in picking sides, similar to when two good friends who were dating break up.

My policy of neutrality applied to the SD-15 race. But it didn’t prevent me from receiving more than a dozen phone calls, texts and emails from both sides, nor did it keep a third-party organization (which shall remain nameless) from lobbying my mother to influence my vote.

But that seems tame when compared to the tussle over the new 30th Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley between fellow Democratic Caucus members Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. I’ll let you read about that one for yourself.

The end result of these primary wars will be millions of dollars and countless hours sucked up by races that Democrats will almost certainly win in November, while the party’s goals of taking back the House and winning two-thirds majorities in the state legislature fall by the wayside due to lack of resources.

So how much is the party’s endorsement really worth?

In the case of Beall and Coto (and Berman and Sherman), we’ll never know. Neither candidate secured enough votes to be endorsed.

Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and a proud native of San José. He is serving his second term as an elected delegate to the California Democratic State Central Committee.


  1. I agree that this is all a waste of money.  Don’t know why they did it this way.  Why pit dem-against-dem?  But an even larger question to me in the Congressional District 30 is why both men are in this race?  We need to gain the house back and Brad Sherman has the ability to win Congressional District 26 without a problem.  It bothers me that these two men will spend so much money that could otherwise go to help dems whose seats are in real jeopardy because of the redistricting rather than spend a bunch of money so our net result will be that we’ll go from two Jewish congressmen in the house to one. Just seems silly and immature.  We need to gain the House back and reduction of dem members is certainly not going to do the trick.

    • “Why pit dem-against-dem?”

      Because the 15th District, like so many others in California, is one where the only possible winner can be a Democrat.  Why bother running a Republican sacrificial lamb against a guaranteed-to-win Democrat in November, like we used to do?  What a waste of money (and an otherwise ridiculous farce) that was!  This way, its much more democratic, in that all the voters actually get some say in who their State Senator will be, instead of just effectively having to accept whomever the Democratic primary voters forced onto them.

    • I couldn’t agree more! Check out this website calling for Brad to run in Ventura: Ventura is a pick up for Dems but we need someone strong to take on Tony Stickland.

  2. Pre Primary endorsement really needs to be collapsed into debates over state constitutional officers.  The California Democtatic Council was created as a means to endorse in local races, and I believe one large convention debating guberntorial candidates or even presidential candidates would be far better than little brush fire wars in the districts.

  3. You raise excellent points, Peter – especially because the parties and candidates tend to conveniently forget that their frantic efforts to be king of the mountain regardless of who falls by the wayside, commonly causes them to lose credibility in the eyes of the reasonable voter.  Like Pawnee, California remains a state of reasonable voters…but watch out for the Central Valley.  Those people are crazy.

    Cheers to you, Peter Allen.  Send me a note when you decide to run for office.

  4. Geroge (or George?) writes: “… so our net result will be that we’ll go from two Jewish congressmen in the house to one. Just seems silly and immature.  We need to gain the House back…”

    Question: Who is the we in “we’ll go” from two to one? Is it Democrats or Jews? If the answer is Democrats, then explain why Democrats should care about Jewishness? But if the answer is instead “Jews,” then how is that different, or less offensive, than if someone had warned of going from “two White congressmen” or “two male congressmen” down to one?

    Oh wait. Cancel my foolishly questioning the political correctness of your post. I forgot; when it comes to political correctness, it’s obvious (from the comfortable arrogance in your post) that you’re a member of those who get to determine what’s offensive.

  5. I’m sorry, I don’t know what “Jewishness” is so I won’t even attempt to answer that question.  I must say, however, that I do not agree with your assessment this is the same as losing “two White congressmen.”  You may not have noticed but the house, by and large, has very few minorities.  And the reason democrats should care about Jews is the same reason we should care about all minorities to ensure their their voices are heard and represented. 

    To be clear, my point was/is two Jewish congressmen duking it out over one seat is silly when it is avoidable.  And two democrats duking it out over one seat instead of fighting to keep two is equally as foolish.

  6. George,

    You claim not to know what Jewishness is but you took the effort to express on this blog your desire that it be maximized in Congress. So what is one to make of that? Do you contend that Jews bring something unique to the political table that has nothing to do with their being Jewish? Or is the truth that you got caught with your prejudices exposed?

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