Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Get 7 Minutes to Woo California Party Faithful

Fourteen presidential candidates and their supporters were hoping to make an impression at the California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Updated Sunday 12:30 pm.

In what could be described as political speed dating, 14 Democratic candidates for president of the United States each got seven minutes to make their pitch to the 3,400 delegates gathered at this weekend's California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco.

All of the top tier candidates, with the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, spoke on Saturday and Sunday.

KQED's politics team was at the convention and has this analysis of the candidates' messages in reverse order of appearance:

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Rep. John Delaney (Maryland)

If there’s one of the 14 Democratic presidential candidates who spoke this weekend that few could tell you anything about, it’s Maryland Congressman John Delaney. But that changed today -- and not in a good way -- at least for the few hundred delegates who stuck around long to hear the final candidate speak. 

Delaney got booed -- louder and longer than former Gov. John Hickenlooper yesterday after Delaney attacked the idea of single payer health care, which is a touchstone for many in the California Democratic Party.

Delaney said the so-called Medicare for All "would kick millions of Americans off their existing health insurance,” cementing his status as the least-loved candidate this weekend.

The booing prompted the party’s acting chair Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker to say “ can we now continue the speeches with dignity and respect for he rest of our speakers?”

Former Mayor Julian Castro (Texas)

The former mayor of San Antonio, Texas was introduced by his congressman brother Joaquin.

“A lot of times I need a name tag," Julian Castro joked about frequent confusion with his brother.  “He says I’m a minute uglier than he is, which is not true.”

Castro had the unfortunate chore of speaking right after Bernie Sanders, whose supporters mostly left the hall after his speech. Given that California has a large and growing Latino population, it’s a little surprising that Castro, who attended Stanford as an undergrad and has ties to the Bay Area, doesn’t have more of an organized presence here in California. But he doesn’t.

Castro used his time to tell his increasingly well known family story. “My mom was a hell raiser in the early Chicana movement," Castro said. He invoked the memory of  his grandmother, who had a foot amputated because of diabetes before pledging to “strengthen Medicare and make sure it’s available to every single person in this country.” But he was vague about what exactly that meant or how he would do it.

The crowd, by now scant, seemed most aroused by Castro’s description of inequality in the criminal justice system. After noting approvingly that white supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted of killing nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, Castro said “what about Eric Garner … and across the Bay Stephon Clark? They need justice too,” he said referring to unarmed people of color who died at the hands of police.

Castro, in a reference to President Trump's immigration policies, said what he looked forward to most if he is elected is the traditional "changing of the guard" walk from the White House to the inauguration at the U.S. Capitol  with the outgoing and incoming presidents and their spouses. "What I'll say is, adios."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)

Andrea, Zoe and Rex Luna hold attend the California Democratic Party State Convention as Bernie supporters. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

When the speaking schedule was announced last week, it was a bit surprising that Sen. Sanders was slated to talk on Sunday -- usually most of the out-of-town delegates have headed for the airport by then. There was some thought that perhaps it was intended to help keep the most liberal activists around long enough to vote for Kimberly Ellis in a much-expected Sunday runoff for party chair. But with Rusty Hicks sewing it up in the first round last night, Sanders ended up playing to a much smaller crowd than Saturday’s speakers.

But Sanders wasted no time doing what others have done this weekend -- obliquely criticizing Joe Biden without mentioning his name.

“In my view we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign. We have to give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote and a reason to believe that politics is relevant to their lives,” Sanders said.

Sanders, thanked those who supported his 2016 campaign for president saying “today we take that revolution forward.”

Adding to the weekend’s pile of insults and criticisms of President Trump, Sanders called him “the worst president in the history of this country -- a president who is racist, sexist,  homophobic and a religious bigot.”

Citing a litany of issues including health care, gun control, making corporations pay their fair of taxes “including Amazon” and abortion, Sanders said repeatedly “there is no middle ground.”

Sanders certainly still has his army of supporters in California, but as the convention winds down there is a sense that as Sen. Elizabeth Warren rises, Sanders will fall, losing support to the candidate President Trump derides as “Pocahontas.”

Many delegates and other party insiders say Warren’s tour de force performance Saturday put her on the radar for many people who were supporting Kamala Harris or Sen. Sanders.

Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. (John Kennedy)

Booker closed out the Saturday slate of presidential candidates with a rousing speech focused on gun violence that brought delegates to their feet.

A day after a gunman shot and killed 12 people in Virginia Beach, Booker lamented what he called the “normalization of mass murder in our country.”

“It is time to take a fight to the NRA and the corporate gun lobby like we have never seen before,” Booker said. “We can lead that fight and win.”

Booker tied the shootings to violence in Newark, New Jersey, where he served as mayor from 2006 until 2013, and still lives.

“Just a few weeks ago we had shootings in our neighborhood,” he said.

Rallying the crowd with references to the civil rights movement, Booker implored Democrats to not accept the violence as the status quo.

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.

And unlike many of the Democrats who spoke before him, Booker refrained from lengthy critiques of President Trump.

“It is not about one guy in one office,” Booker said. “It is about who we are and who we must be to each other. Beating Donald Trump is a must, but that is a floor not a ceiling.”

Gov. Jay Inslee (Washington)

With boos for former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper still echoing in the Moscone Center, Jay Inslee couldn’t resist piling on.

“I’m the governor who doesn’t think we should be ashamed of our progressive values,” he began.

Inslee’s campaign for president has been laser-focused on climate change, but somewhat surprisingly, he began his remarks to the convention on a different topic.

“It may be a surprise to [President Trump], but we will beat him on the issue of immigration," Inslee said.

He criticized Trump’s plan to shift the country’s immigration system away from “family-based” migration, toward a “merit-based” system.

“You know what has merit? Grandparents have merit, fathers have merit,” Inslee said.

When his speech turned toward climate change, Inslee focused on the human impacts of increasingly intense wildfires, which he witnessed in trips to the California towns of Paradise and Malibu.

“I decided in my final days on Earth, I want to look my grandchildren in the eyes and say I did everything possible to save them from the clutches of climate change,” he added.

Inslee was a frequent collaborator with former California Gov. Jerry Brown on climate initiatives and was an early advocate for an economic mobilization to combat global warming — an idea popularized in the Green New Deal.

While climate change has taken on an unprecedented place in Democratic primary campaigns, Inslee is hoping for more, telling delegates that he wrote the Democratic National Committee on Saturday to renew his call for a climate change-focused debate.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado)

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper. (John Kennedy)

Few could have predicted that the afternoon’s loudest political fireworks would come during the speech of former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Minutes into his remarks, Hickenlooper told delegates that “socialism is not the answer,” a pronouncement which was answered with a chorus of boos.

It remains to be seen if Hickenlooper can turn the badgering into a badge of honor, as Dianne Feinstein and Jerry Brown did with past state convention jeering. But in the short term, his reception illustrates the leftward lean of many party stalwarts gathered in the Moscone Center.

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up helping to reelect the worst president in American history,” Hickenlooper said.

Boos continued when Hickenlooper said he was opposed to stripping private health insurance from Americans in order to create a single-payer system.

Hickenlooper pleaded with the crowd to consider the incremental progress he pushed as governor of Colorado, including a state health care exchange and gun control bills expanding background checks and limiting ammunition purchases.

“We need a progressive and a pragmatist,” he said.

The explanations did little to win the crowd over. And maybe Hickenlooper preferred it that way.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota)

Klobuchar has quips. In her seven-minute slot on Saturday, the Minnesota senator rolled off almost all of them: how Donald Trump’s hair would fair in a Minnesota blizzard, the donations she’s solicited from ex-boyfriends (“not an expanding base”) and her favorite climate march chant (“when do we want it? After peer review!”)

After a campaign rollout that painted her as anything but “Minnesota nice,” Klobuchar seems committed to laying on the folksiness and convincing delegates that she is uniquely suited to defeat Donald Trump.

“We need to win in California and the Midwest, and California Democrats, I know how to win in the Midwest,” Klobuchar said. “I have won every single red congressional district [in Minnesota] three times, including Michele Bachmann’s.”

Klobuchar promised action on immigration, voting reforms and health care, but opted not to voice her past critiques on major tech companies.

The Minnesota senator also laid on the love for local teachers and politicians, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“It is so great to be in a state that has led the way on paid family leave, $15 minimum wage, worker protection, and reproductive rights,” she said. “You are the Golden State Democrats and you have shown us what democracy looks like.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (Hayward)

Rep. Eric Swalwell. (John Kennedy)

Swalwell took the stage to the blasting bass of Tupac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love,” and used his seven minutes to hammer his hometown credentials, praise “California exceptionalism,” and give a shoutout to the Golden State Warriors.

“We change, we adapt, we evolve. We invent the latest tech, and then we invent it’s replacement,” Swalwell said. “California helped spread reality TV to the world. But California, we are going to help remove a reality TV star from the Oval Office.”

The East Bay congressman also thanked California delegates for organizing victories in seven California House districts.

“You cut our time in hell in half,” he quipped.

And Swalwell’s list of problems facing the nation had a decidedly Bay Area lens: the first issue he mentioned was “our housing crisis.”

Swalwell then turned to gun violence, the top issue of his campaign. He has proposed banning and buying back every assault weapon in the country.

“Let’s take the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous people,” he said. “Those weapons belong on battlefields, not in churches, not in our schools.”

Swalwell cited his experience prosecuting gun violence cases as an Alameda County prosecutor, but left out other parts of his political rise — including his successful intra-party challenge to longtime Democratic Rep. Pete Stark.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Indiana) 

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (John Kennedy)

“I’m not from around here, but I feel right at home every time I come to California,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeg began his speech to delegates. “Because the spirit of this state is so much like the spirit of my campaign: new thinking, bold action and a focus on the future.”

Buttigieg has seemingly made the Golden State a second home in the last few months, holding fundraisers and events in California as he has skyrocketed from fringe contender to among the top Democratic candidates in nationwide polls.

Buttigieg’s speech leaned on his increasingly familiar biography: a Midwestern mayor who was deployed to Afghanistan, came home and then came out. The loudest applause came at a mention of “waking up next to my husband,” Chasten Buttigieg.

Echoing the call of Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier in the day, Buttigieg warned delegates against falling into a trap of anointing the most “electable” candidate.

“The riskiest thing we could do is try too hard to play it safe,” he said. “We’d better come up with something completely different.”

“So why not nominate a middle class, millennial mayor with a track record from the industrial Midwest?” Buttigieg continued. “Why not a mayor, when America wants Washington to work more like our best-run cities and towns, instead of the other way around?”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii)

True to her reputation, the congresswoman from Hawaii brought controversial positions and an unmatched focus on foreign policy to her speech.

Speaking in a convention center often reserved for big tech gatherings, Gabbard promised to take aim at Silicon Valley giants.

"I’ll break up ... the big tech companies who take away our civil liberties in the name of national security and corporate greed,” Gabbard said. “I’ll break up those big tech monopolies and stand up and protect our constitutional right to privacy.”

Gabbard’s calling card is a foreign policy doctrine that stands apart from most Democrats. She is anti-interventionist and has controversially taken a softer stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Before her election to the House in 2012, Gabbard served in the Middle East as a member of the Hawaii National Guard. On Saturday, she was the only candidate to commit significant portions of her speech to foreign policy.

“For far too long warmongers from both parties have been dragging us from one regime change to the next,” Gabbard told delegates, promising “a foreign policy based not on conflict but on cooperation. As commander in chief I’ll have the courage to meet with both adversaries and friends.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)

Wasting no time before picking up the attack on President Trump, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand labeled the commander in chief a “coward” in her speech to delegates.

“He’s tearing apart the moral fabric of this country and turning our most cherished moral principles inside out,” she said.

Gillibrand has run on her ability to win in red America: her political career began by knocking off a Republican incumbent in a conservative House district in upstate New York. In winning reelection to the Senate last year, Gillibrand won 18 counties that voted for Trump in 2016.

“I never forgot that I served the people and no one else,” she said.

Gillibrand called herself “the leading presidential candidate on women’s rights,” weeks after declaring she will only appoint judges who support the Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights.

But Gillibrand saved her remarks on abortion rights for the end of her speech, framing it within her pledge to reform the nation’s campaign finance laws.

“When you get money out of politics, more women and minorities will have a seat at the table,” Gillibrand said. “I can tell you that this war on women would end overnight if we got money out of politics.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (California)

California Sen. Kamala Harris
California Sen. Kamala Harris (John Kennedy)

Kamala Harris took direct aim at President Trump, attacking his record on the environment, economy, civil rights, voting rights, health care, a women’s right to choose and the Russia investigation.

“He obstructed justice and then hired an attorney general to clean up the crime scene,” she said.

Harris got a warm welcome from the crowd, telling the state's Democrats that she was happy to be home with a group that’s “not afraid to fight.”

“As most of you know I was raised by a mother who’s a fighter," Harris told the crowd. "My mother was all of 5 feet tall, but if you ever met her ... you would have thought she was 7 feet tall, and when we came home complaining about something she would look at you, maybe a hand on her hip and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ So I decided to run for president of the United States.”

Harris slammed Trump for his trade war: “He said he would bring back jobs, and what did he do? He turned around and started a trade war. Let’s all call it what it is: it’s a trade tax. I like to call it the Trump trade tax,” she said, “and his trade tax is taking $1.4 billion out of working family’s pockets every single month.”

But it was her closing line that really fired up the room.

“We need to begin impeachment proceedings and we need a new commander-in-chief,” Harris said to raucous cheers.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (Texas)

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke. (John Kennedy)

O'Rourke was introduced by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Monica Rodriquez, who said that in his losing race against Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O'Rourke "led a 500 percent increase in youth voter turnout taking Texas from a red state to a swing state."

Starting his remarks in fluent Spanish before he transitioned to English, O'Rourke hit on climate change, health care and immigration. He noted that his 2018 campaign, which broke the record for money raised in a U.S. Senate race, was accomplished without a single dime from a political action committee.

O'Rourke promised a "bold progressive agenda for everyone," noting that he talked about gun control measures in a state with a deep pro-gun culture during his Senate race.

Countdown to 2020

Touching on most of the Democratic priorities, O'Rourke mentioned "universal guaranteed health care," including "mental heath care and making sure a woman makes her own decisions about her body."

He also called, in Spanish and English, for ending the "schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline," which he noted begins in kindergarten.

O'Rourke, who is not as well known in California as some of the other candidates, also talked about "ending the war on drugs" and expunging the records of people convicted of possessing "something that is legal in this country."

He promised that if elected, he will sign a new voting rights act, including same-day voter registration and an end to gerrymandering.

On immigration, O'Rourke called for easing the path to citizenship for millions of legal permanent residents and undocumented immigrants starting with the so-called Dreamers "as soon as humanly possible."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (John Kennedy)

Supporters of the Massachusetts senator packed the convention hall as Warren took the stage where she railed against not only Trump but the Democratic Party as an institution. She said for too long, party leaders have been too cautious.

“If they dream at all, they dream small … Some say if we just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses,” she said. “Our country is in a time of crisis. "The time for small ideas is over.”

Warren, who has excited supporters with her detailed trove of policy proposals, played on that reputation.

“We need big, structural changes — and yes, I have a plan for that,” she said to cheers.

“We will pass the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate. We will make everybody who runs for federal office post their tax returns online. We will break up big ag, big banks, big tech. We will make it easier for workers to join a union. And yes, we will pass a wealth tax that’s 2 cents on the dollar for people with fortunes worth more than $50 million. That is the top one-tenth of 1%. They can afford two cents."

Like most of the other candidates, Warren didn’t take any direct shots at her 23 competitors in the Democratic Party -- at least not by name. But she seemed to be hinting at how she will go after former Vice President Joe Biden, who has laid out a more cautious, centrist campaign stratgedy.

“Too many powerful people in our party say, 'Settle down, back up … wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes,'" she said. “Here’s the thing — when a candidate tells you all the things that aren't possible … they are telling you they will not fight for you, and I am here to fight."