California Is Not As Liberal As You Think

Nancy Pelosi shows the limits of the state’s progressive march.

Nancy Pelosi.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a weekly news conference on Thursday on Capitol Hill. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the California Democratic Party declined to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week, it was taken as a sign that progressives might be poised to update the political order in the Golden State. Kevin de León, the leader of Democrats in the state Senate and a proud progressive, won 54 percent of the vote to Feinstein’s 37 percent—shy of the 60 percent needed to win the party’s endorsement but an impressive upset nonetheless. “I’m running for the United States Senate because the days of Democrats biding our time, biting our tongue, and triangulating at the margins are over,” de León said in a speech before results were tallied. “And I’m running because California’s greatness comes from acts of human audacity, not from congressional seniority.”

Even in regions like conservative Orange County, the political tides seem to be shifting. Two of the county’s Republican congressmen, Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, announced their retirements in January, likely sensing, as Democratic leaders have, that demographic change and anti-Trump sentiment have made the area ripe for Democratic pickups. There are more than a dozen Democrats in the running for those seats and 67 total for the 14 Republican-held seats statewide. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 10 of those seats and is especially optimistic about the seven Republican-held districts that went for Clinton in 2016.

But the already liberal state isn’t likely to move further left without at least a few hiccups. As reported by the Intercept’s David Dayen, there was a floor fight during the state party’s convention over an endorsement in the Orange County region’s 45th District race. David Min, a law professor and former economic policy director at center-left think tank the Center for American Progress, narrowly managed to clear the 60 percent threshold required for an endorsement, triggering a contentious petition challenge from backers of progressive opponent Katie Porter, endorsed by Democracy for America and 2020 hopefuls Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Min ultimately prevailed in a voice vote called by state party Chairman Eric Bauman after canvassing and speeches from party leaders.

The episode was ammunition for party activists who insist that the party establishment routinely engages in efforts to thwart progressives. But in California, voters themselves seem to be in on the scheme. For instance, Sen. Feinstein has, along with all the advantages of a 26-year incumbency, a nearly 30-point lead on De Leon in the polls. In 2016, Bernie Sanders lost the state to Clinton in 2016 by nearly 8 points—not a blowout, but not a particularly flattering showing either. The fairly firm grip the party’s establishment seems to have on the state goes some way toward explaining why there hasn’t been much talk at all about unseating California’s most important Democrat: Nancy Pelosi.

There is growing chatter among voices both progressive and not in the House about whether Pelosi’s time as leader of Democrats in the chamber might be up. On the right and in the jittery center, there’s an abiding belief that Republican attacks associating vulnerable candidates with Pelosi make her leadership a liability in contestable districts. On the left, progressives are loudly dissatisfied, ironically, with her commitment to leaving space in the party for centrist candidates—Pelosi endorsed anti-choice incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois’ 3rd District on Thursday—and her wariness of moves left broadly speaking on issues like single payer.

In her district, that discontent has only produced a few long-shot challengers, all from the left. The most covered of which so far has been 72-year-old former attorney and Bernie Sanders volunteer Stephen Jaffe, who’s seasoned his economic progressivism with a dash of disdain for left identity politics. It was discovered last May that Jaffe had written a Facebook post lamenting that “old straight white” men like himself were “perceived as a politically incorrect liability.” “I don’t want to be judged by the color of my skin, or by my age,” he later explained to the Los Angeles Times.

The other potentially serious candidate in the race is Ryan Khojasteh, the going-on-25 son of Iranian immigrants, a law student at UC–Hastings, and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Immigrant Rights Commission. He is as perfect a representative of the left’s more youthful and diverse elements as one could possibly conjure and he knows it.

“When you’re worth $29 million, and I’m living in a subsidized studio apartment in the Tenderloin with $150,000 in student debt, that’s a disconnect that may never be bridged,” he said of Pelosi in an interview with Slate. “What we need to do is create a diverse coalition from the Latino/Latina community, the African-American community, the LGBTQ community, the Asian community, the Middle Eastern community, the underserved communities together. Give us a reason to believe in change and have a seat at the table so that we can be part of the process, not just be used for our votes.”

His platform comprises nearly every item on the progressive wish list: single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, free college education, marijuana legalization. He’s open, too, to exploring proposals that are increasingly the subject of conversation on the left, including a job guarantee and universal basic income. Khojasteh also reached out to the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America for a chance to speak to the group but was told the group wasn’t endorsing candidates for federal office. He’s nevertheless optimistic that he can build up the grassroots support from left and progressive activists he needs to get his candidacy off the ground. He’s also relying on California’s jungle primary system, in which candidates from all parties compete in the same primary before a runoff of the top two vote getters—making a race between two Democrats in the general likely. “We’ve calculated that we need around 20,000 votes,” he says. “Twenty thousand votes would give us strong second place. And then from that position, force her into a debate. I really do believe this would be a winnable race if we could get her to debate, and we will raise hell until we get that debate.”

Even on that narrow front, Khojasteh will have his work cut out for him. Pelosi has habitually ignored primary opponents and can obviously afford to do so. She cleared 70 percent of the vote in the past two primaries and 80 percent of the vote in the past three general elections. Still, as far as the left wing’s long-term project of remaking the party is concerned, it likely won’t hurt if left candidates make noise and demonstrate that they can have or can build constituencies, provided that there aren’t too many contenders. In districts outside San Francisco, the jungle primary system means there’s a real risk that Democratic vote splitting could hand an advantage to Republican incumbents if the field gets too crowded. “[I]n 2012, Democrats suffered an embarrassing defeat in a Southern California congressional district where they held an edge in voter registration,” Mother Jones’ Bryan Schatz noted. “Four Democrats ran, split the vote, and then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar finished third behind two Republicans in the primary.”

But that’s not a concern in districts as safe as Pelosi’s, where progressives have little to lose, and attention from the voting public and respect from party elders to gain. And Khojasteh’s hoping that he and other progressive challengers do well enough to rattle the party into rethinking its strategy nationally. “[W]hat we need to be doing is inserting passion into our politics rather than pragmatism,” he says. “We really need to reframe our strategy. I think in the hearts and minds of people there is this fire for progressivism. But we’re never going to understand that potential unless we start fighting for it.”