This weekend is one of three annual meetings of the California Democratic Party: one meeting for all of the party’s delegates, then two meetings of the Executive Board. This one is a bit special because it’s being held in Orange County. Not in Anaheim, as is commonly done, but in — Costa Mesa! (Yes, Costa Mesa. You all know the problems we’ve had with Costa Mesa this decade, right? Anyway, moving on.)
Having lived in both some very liberal places (New York City, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Takoma Park) and very conservative ones (rural Indiana, rural Arkansas, Newport Beach), as well as some in between, I know very well how people from blue areas feel when they come into red areas: “there but for the grace of God go I.” (Atheists may reword as necessary.) I expect that some visitors to Costa Mesa this weekend may view it in part as a kind of exotic safari into the deep Redderness.
It may follow, for them, that this is a place that can be sadly written off — with the exception of pockets like where Loretta Sanchez’s, Tom Daly’s, and Lou Correa’s districts overlap, districts that are half or more in LA (Linda Sanchez’s, Ron Calderon’s, Al Lowenthal’s) or area where we see truly heroic performances like those of Sharon Quirk Silva, the Huntington Beach progressive slate, or Irvine from 2000-2012.
We few Democrats here (446,000 of us — compared to 586,000 Republicans, 316,000 No Party Preference, and 62,000 others) made the choice to live here, after all, and we should recognize being so vastly outnumbered as just part of the price we have to pay. If we don’t like it, we should fix it.
DON’T BE STUPID, FELLOW CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATS!
The relative weakness of Orange County’s Democratic Party given the size of its partisan base — despite strong efforts from many activists who live here — doesn’t solely hurt us. In fact, it doesn’t even primarily hurt us. Weakness within Orange County’s Democratic Party efforts primarily hurts the rest of you: in four main areas:
(1) legislative composition
(2) statewide offices
(3) statewide initiatives
(4) local policies and political efforts with statewide implications
With a stronger Orange County, we would have gotten to 2/3 in each house — a reliable 2/3 — much more quickly than we did.
With a stronger Orange County — not necessarily even majority Democratic, but simply one where we could pick the low-hanging fruit outside of Santa Ana and near the universities — statewide initiatives that lose by a point or two can start to win. Simply having a decent voter turnout effort here — one that we simply can’t do with a volunteer activist base the size of that of Ventura County — can do the trick.
With a stronger Orange County, where we could turn out not only the relative low voting areas in 2010 that were needed to retain Loretta Sanchez, but the votes embedded in the outlying areas that would prefer Democratic constitutional officers, Kamala Harris would have had a comfortable victory rather than a nail-biter of an upset. Kamala Harris lost Orange County by a margin of 245,000 votes. Her winning margin in Los Angeles County, over three times our size, was 315,000 votes. As Orange County Co-Coordinator for the Jerry Brown campaign in 2010, I can tell you that outside of Santa Ana and Irvine we simply did not compete in this county. Brown lost by 171,000 votes, where his only campaigning to speak of was on TV. Neither Brown nor Boxer nor Harris had a ground campaign here worth the name. This was primarily, overwhelmingly, a simple matter of lack of resources.
Think about it: You almost failed to elect Kamala Harris in 2010 because you neglected Orange County. You left us to fend for ourselves — other than using us as a piggy bank for the rest of the state — as if our votes did not count in statewide totals. The refusal to defend Prop 8, the aggressive negotiation with the major financial institutions — it all was almost gone because you neglected Orange County.
And, in reading this, you’re probably thinking something like: “well, if Orange County needs more resources, then you activists here should go out and get them.”
DON’T BE STUPID. WE’RE TRYING — JUST LIKE DEMOCRATS DO IN WYOMING AND UTAH. THIS ISN’T ABOUT US, IT’S ABOUT YOU.
If you see the relative weakness of Democrats in OC as our fault, as something that we need to fix, then you are screwing yourselves. If we’re underfunded, putting on both activist and fundraising campaigns on a shoestring, and scrambling to keep our heads above water, then you lose votes. YOU lose elections, too.
You lose out so even if — as I think is increasingly the case — we do a pretty damn good job under difficult circumstances. You lose out if we have to rely overwhelmingly on corporate and developer contributions, hamstringing and hobbling the sorts of actions we can take, because that’s where the local money is.
We have a good core of activists here, but also a milieu where many liberals and progressives are in the closet for business and professional reasons — much like in the Old South — and where many others hold the party in contempt because of its apparent weakness and its sometimes compromised nature. Orange County is the epicenter of “not a damn bit of difference between the parties” cynicism — because here, more than most other places, the rule of thumb is that Democrats should be afraid to be Democrats.
That weakness, those compromises, come about not because we party activists just aren’t running hard enough on the hamster wheel. Don’t patronize us based on your experiences from deep blue areas. It’s because we’re not blessed with the same advantages as our brothers and sisters in Los Angeles or San Francisco, Sacramento and Alameda, the north coast and the central coast, San Jose and San Diego. (San Diego is an instructive example: because unlike here most of its population is centered around a big city, organizing there is simply easier than it is in a county where simply getting around is a burden.
Orange County is like the far reaches northern San Diego County, like the San Gabriel and Simi Valleys and Palmdale/Lancaster in LA County — with one exception from most of them: our opponents have an ungodly amount of money as well as the standard measure of community influence.
Let me try to put the situation to you logically. We’re an agricultural state, right? I’ll use an agricultural metaphor.
Let’s say that you had one orchard with a lot of fruit trees and one orchard with a third as many, a little more spaced out, a little more scraggly, with many of the trees far away from the entrance off the road. If you were starting from scratch, where would you focus your resources? That’s right — the orchard with a lot of fruit trees. We can call that orchard “Los Angeles,” “San Francisco,” “Alameda” — you name it.
Now, let’s say that you’ve done that for a while so that the low-hanging fruit is all gone — and most of the medium-hanging fruit is gone as well. In the smaller orchard — let’s call it “Orange” — people have on their own picked much of the low-hanging fruit in some of the areas easiest to access — we can call those trees “Santa Ana” — and in a few other places, but there are plenty of other places where if you’ll just walk all of the way over there you can have the fruit for the easy picking.
Now, you find yourself with a $10,000 rebate from Obamacare, which you can invest into your business. Which makes more sense? Should you hire talented climbers and rent equipment to make sure that every damn last piece of fruit is picked from out of the larger orchard? Or should you hire some average shmoes who can trundle out to those mostly ignored trees in the smaller orchard and make sure that at least the easy work is being done wherever it can be done?
Which gives you more fruit? Which elects Kamala Harris? Which might have defeated Prop 8 in 2008? I think that it’s clear!
Here’s something to know about party leadership here in Orange County: we spend a lot of effort trying to stretch a dollar. We do not have Hollywood liberals or Silicon Valley progressives or Sacramento lobbyists to guarantee our funding. A lot of our local funding may come at a price — not necessarily compromise with evil, but compromise with groups that want what we might call “bluewashing” of efforts that would make people scream in other parts of the state. This, in turn, provides a basis for people to disdain the party as being “no different” from the Republicans.
We can explain how we’re different until we’re blue in the face — I will tell you from experience, it is largely ineffective. This is the home of the John Birch society — paranoia and contempt is woven into our social fabric. But while those forces may make it very hard for Orange County ever to see a progressive majority, they also prevent us from harvesting a lot of low-hanging-fruit — good-hearted but most apolitical people across our many cities who often tell us, when we do find them, that “they thought that they were the only Democrat around.”
That part of the problem can be fixed! That part of the problem needs to be fixed! You have two choices as to how to fix it:
(1) You can leave us to muddle through using our own devices — to our bare-bones and inadequate funding drives targeting largely anti-progressive forces or progressive forces who don’t think that we have the power to make a difference, or
(2) You can get us access to money from elsewhere in progressive California — as I said, we know how to stretch a buck — so that we can at least harvest the low-hanging fruit from around the county and even organize the people that we contact to do more. (Right now, when we meet them we try to shake them down for money. This may shock you, but many people find that to be a turn-off.)
Which is it going to be? Yes, we know that it helps us to have this outside support. But if you don’t realize that it helps you as much or more, you have a lot to learn about politics in an well-populated red area. We have people around here who would be glad to teach you.
The more progressive parts of the state have to start treating us as your smaller conjoined twin. You may snicker at us — but if we die here political, before long so do you.