I’m admittedly biased as a party Vice-Chair — but I was honestly impressed with the face that the Democratic Party of Orange County put forth to the world on Saturday night. The Disneyland Hotel location was opulent without being garish, but what was most impressive was the people placed in that setting. And what was most impressive about the 600-or-so assembled guests was their diversity. I’ll share a few photos of my own along with some shamelessly snagged from Facebook.
1. Everybody Loves Sharon
Something about this year’s Truman Dinner was different. I hadn’t returned to Orange County in time to experience some of the most historic previous dinners, such as the one a decade ago when John Edwards used the occasion to launch his Presidential campaign. In recent years we’ve seen keynote addresses from luminaries from Nancy Pelosi to Barney Frank, Jerry Brown to Gavin Newsom, generally arriving with a flavor of a national touring company of Broadway play, bringing someone famous to what some might have thought to be the political hinterlands (at least for Democrats.) We enjoyed the performances, but there was not much special about their performance being in OC; the same basic show might be running the next week in San Diego or Santa Barbara or Seattle without much change in script.
Not last night. Last night, the fact that the performance was in Orange County mattered — because somewhat suddenly and largely unexpectedly, Orange County itself matters, statewide and nationally.
This had happened before, to an extent, with the symbolically crucial 1996 victory of Loretta Sanchez over then-incumbent Rep. “B-1” Bob Dornan — still probably the all-time favorite war story of county Democrats. But the victory highlighted attention last night was as substantive as it was symbolic: Sharon Quirk-Silva‘s victory in the 65th Assembly District — the one that brought the party its covered 54th seat, giving Democrats a 2/3 majority in the Assembly, without which this year’s political developments might have been quite different.
(Note: yes, it’s true that a subsequent win by Steve Fox up in Lancaster/Palmdale gave the party a 55th seat as well, which did get a passing mention last night, but that victory still seems mostly to confuse people. Sharon’s win is the one that’s roundly celebrated — perhaps because it’s the one more likely to remain.)
So, there were a lot of heartfelt compliments offered to Sharon last night and audience enthusiasm for her, as she introduced 2013 Truman Award recipient Assembly Speaker John Pérez, was through the roof. Pérez — who between his selection for the award and last night came out as a candidate for State Controller against widely respected Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, who was also in attendance — lavishly praised Sharon and gave some appealing insider political scoop to the audience. Sharon’s husband, Jesus Silva, followed Pérez in introducing one of Sharon’s hometown grassroots community activist supporters, Fullerton’s Monika Broome, whose work earned her a Lifetime Achievement award.
Yes, as the Weekly noted with great fanfare, the Speaker’s name was unfortunately rendered as “Parez” on the slide introducing him. Yes, someone in our office made a small typographical mistake. On the other hand, OC’s Republican Party this year had as their keynoter some guy named Ted Cruz from Texas — and he just shut down the government for no good reason and cost the country $24 billion. And that was intentional. So people can decide which bothers them more.
2. Keynote and Sub-Keynote
Rep. Joaquin Castro, twin brother of San Antonio Mayor and 2012 Democratic Keynote Speaker Julian Castro, was this year’s Keynote Speaker, driving home the increasing importance of Latinos to the Democratic Party coalition. Some Latinos audibly grumbled that Castro is not all that progressive — and yes, among Latino officeholders his political comparison with views of Latinos is probably similar to what President Obama‘s is to African-Americans. (On the other hand, among Orange County Latino officeholders, we’re pretty used to that. In fact, if he’s like Loretta Sanchez, that puts him ahead of the curve.) Castro’s speech was well-received and at least half the audience seemed to find him adorable — and that was even before he tried on the white cowboy hat.
Of more direct interest to Orange County was the speech given by the man introducing Rep. Castro, Rep. Raul Ruiz of Palm Springs, who (like Pérez) gave what could itself have constituted a decent keynote address. Dr. Ruiz — who holds three degrees from Harvard in the “we will bury you with our superior education” Democratic Party tradition — is heading for what appears to be a tight race against Brian Nestande — and OC is among the places where he is looking for help. With Republicans apparently by now realizing that Alan Lowenthal is likely to crush any competition in CA-47 next year like small bugs, Ruiz’s CA-36 is one of the nearest competitive Congressional races to OC. We’re sort of being asked to adopt it as our own. Ruiz is an appealing candidate — moderate, as suits his district, decent and hella sharp — and unless OC’s donors somehow run out of money we can expect to see a lot of him over the next year.
The last four awardees included retiring Building Trades head Jim Adams, who gave a strong old-fashioned Labor speech without delving too much into the controversies that have pitted the Trades against environmentalists and consumer advocates (myself included.) Aside from him, they tended to be from the less establishment wing of the party.
My friend Jeff LeTourneau, a longtime GLBT and Labor activist, introduced Social Justice Award winner Tefere Gebre. LeTourneau’s speech was notable on its own, though, as he introduced many of the students and other young people whom he and others had brought to the dinner as their guests. Among them were OC’s Dream Team, a group of Vietnamese GLBT young, and Cassidy Campbell, the transgendered woman whom you’ll recall was recently elected to be Homecoming Queen of Marina H.S. — a first-in-the-nation event. Huntington Beach City Councilman Joe Shaw, to whom we will return after a moment, made an excellent point about how that triumph didn’t just happen out of the blue, but could be traced to last year’s City Council election, which put a progressive majority in power in that city. After the majority was elected, Shaw worked with others to pass an anti-bullying education program. At Marina, 600 kids signed anti-bullying pledges — and that consciousness-raising helped create an environment where Campbell could be chosen for her role. I had the pleasure of introducing Campbell to Tammi McIntyre, my campaign Treasurer (and, let it be disclosed, a mentor to one of my daughters), who is a leader in the National Women’s political caucus, who is at least a couple of generations Campbell’s senior. It was wonderful to see them getting along so well and celebrating each others’ life triumphs.
LeTourneau was at the podium, though, to introduce Tefere Gebre, who recently departed the Orange County Labor Federation for a top spot at the AFL-CIO in DC. Tefere spoke relatively briefly but passionately on, among other things, how the party needed to focus on the needier elements of the coalition who could not attend this sort of dinner. He gave credit to people in the room for implementing the “community-based” approach that he has championed in OC’s Labor movement, which is what brought him to his national prominence. He has not in the least forgotten his roots here, though — ending his speech with a passionate call for OC leaders to get one thing done in the near future — hold on a moment while I set the bold, italics, and caps lock — “FIX ANAHEIM! FIX ANAHEIM!! FIX ANAHEIM!!!“ This was a pretty welcome message to many of those assembled in the bosom of the Mouse.
Joe Shaw, whom I mentioned above, was brought out onto the stage to introduce a posthumous award to his dear friend and political ally Gus Ayer, known to our readership as the sharp-fanged “Mayor Quimby.” While people have often tended to slip out of the dinner a bit prematurely, by far most of the audience had stayed around for this. Gus’s award was accepted by his family, his son Ethan giving a moving remembrance of his father.
Gus’s achievements over the past decade, and particularly in last year’s elections, have been well-discussed in these virtual pages. While a gadfly within the party in many ways, he was also one of its most effective political leaders — especially among those from outside of the party establishment. Without his efforts, Huntington Beach and Westminster are not bright spots for the party. But while he elected a lot of people, his greatest legacy lies in his work on ballot measures. Political reformers in the party miss him terribly, politically and personally.
But that was not all! Up next came Gus’s close friend, Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, to introduce Gus’s c0-recipient of the first Gus Ayer Award, former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook. Cook gave a spirited speech on environmental issues from decades past (preservation of Bolsa Chica) to the present (the proposed Poseidon desalination plant), showing the audience how, against the odds, these things get done. By the end, the evenings transition from a generalized focus on partisan politics to a specific and often transpartisan focus on issue politics had been completed.
Not every Orange County Democrat can afford to attend the Truman Dinner (your humble author included.) It’s intended not only for party activists, but for donors. The goal that brings people together is to use the money collected from such efforts for grassroots purposes such as voter registration and turnout. We’ll see soon how much the party raised from its night at Disneyland.