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Dems’ new party leader Rusty Hicks faces challenges

Rusty Hicks, new chair of the California Democratic Party, at the party's June convention in San Francisco. (Photo: Jeff Chiu, Associated Press)

California’s Democratic Party is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, with command of the Legislature, all statewide offices, most of the state’s congressional delegation and a heavy registration advantage.

And the party’s new leader wants to spread the wealth.

“California will play an ever more important role nationally because of our early primary,” says newly elected Chairman Rusty Hicks. “The Democratic Party has a responsibility to build on what we have here in California. “Many are looking to California for leadership.”

He is a soft-spoken Afghanistan war veteran who ran his campaign on a “Medicare for All” and environmental justice platform.

Politically, California is deep blue, ruled by Democrats in state and federal elected offices.

But it also has enormous problems, both natural and human-caused, that include large numbers of homeless and people living below the poverty line, problematic air quality, a swelling population of undocumented immigrants, skyrocketing housing costs, income disparity, cyclical and deadly wildfires, grid-locked freeways and earthquakes — to name just a few.

Until June, Hicks was executive director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, one of the country’s largest labor groups. He is a soft-spoken Afghanistan war veteran who ran his campaign on a “Medicare for All” and environmental justice platform. He also promoted plans to help formerly incarcerated people get union jobs. Hicks won the chairmanship in June with 57 percent of the vote at the party’s convention.

Hicks was raised in Fort Worth, Tex. by a single parent, his mother, who was a book keeper. He has long been involved in labor issues. For the past 13 years, he has served as political director of the L.A. labor federation, one of the oldest and most powerful labor groups in the country, formed in 1885 and currently representing about 800,000 workers.

Hicks replaced Eric Bauman, a veteran Democratic strategist and power in the L.A. labor movement, who was forced from office amid sexual harassment scandals.

The most visible sign of party division came during the June  convention, when delegates clashed over whether President Donald Trump should be impeached.

For a Democratic leader, there is lots of political  wealth to spread:

–There are 46 Democrats and seven Republicans 7 in our state’s 53-member House delegation.

–Both U. S. senators from California are Bay Area Democrats.

–Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature; there are 61 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the 80-member Assembly and 29 Democrats and 11 Republicans in the state Senate. (Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon called his situation a “giga-majority.”

–The Secretary of State’s office reports Democrats have 43.1 percent of the state’s registration; the Republicans have 23.6 percent, below the “no party preference” registration of 28.3 percent and “other” at 5.1 percent.

Summing it up, The New York Times declared that “the California Democratic Party stands as a model of electoral success and cohesion.”

There is success, but cohesion might be another matter.

The most visible sign of party division came during the June  convention in San Francisco, when delegates vociferously voiced differing opinions on whether Donald Trump should be impeached. There is worry that the “progressive” wing of the party might tug it so far to the left that ousting Trump in 2020 becomes impossible.

There is also the matter of a so-called “moderate” or “business-friendly” clump of legislative Democrats who are turned off by party colleagues’ progressive social legislation.

Under that scenario, “moderate” voters who gave the party its 2018 triumph might be alienated enough to sit on their hands in 2020. But others point out that the number of undecided voters is becoming smaller and smaller, and the secret of today’s electoral success is to solidify the party base – perhaps over a rallying cry of “Impeach Trump.”

Nationally, Republicans hope to tie California’s litany of problems to the Democrats’ failures to govern effectively, a theme already emerging in the presidential campaigns.

Hicks is cautious about it all.

In a masterpiece of cover-all-your-bases politics, he told Capitol Weekly: “While we rightly call for impeachment of Trump, we have to have faith in the deliberate course laid by our speaker,” referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s go-slow approach to impeachment. That approach has come under fire in recent weeks. Currently, about 120 House Democrats favor impeachment.

“I have not taken a formal position on impeachment,” Hicks noted.

There is also the matter of a so-called “moderate” or “business-friendly” clump of legislative Democrats who are turned off by party colleagues’ progressive social legislation.

Hicks is unperturbed.

“Far too often, we use these shorthand labels,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to press ahead on what improves the lives of Californians.”

Hicks wasted no time in spreading a unity message among party members after his first-ballot victory.

“Everyone, including me, thought that with seven candidates running for Party Chair that the race would result in a runoff. I am humbled by the outcome,” he said.

“I believe that the positive nature of our respective campaigns has been and will prove to be a positive step to a bigger, better, stronger Democratic Party, ” he added.

Whether Hicks’s soothing message of party unity will be needed as the campaigns roll on toward November of 2020 is a question bedeviling many California politicians.

Editor’s Note: Corrects number of Democrats in the state Assembly to 61 instead of 60, 12th graf.

 


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