Biden faces stiff criticism from Democrats for skipping California convention


Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris dueled Friday over Hispanic votes in California, a central front in the nation’s immigration battle where Latinos represent the state’s largest ethnic group. (May 31)

SAN FRANCISCO – Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden decided to skip this weekend’s California Democratic Primary, but he was hardly forgotten.

The former vice president was the only top tier White House hopeful to take a pass on the convention that draws some of state party’s most active supporters. Instead, Biden headed to Ohio to speak at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

The decision didn’t sit well with some convention delegates and elected officials.

“I don’t know if he’s attempting a Rose Garden strategy or if he’s afraid to face the progressive music,” said Norman Solomon, a convention delegate and progressive activist who supports Sen. Bernie Sanders. “He was not going to be very popular at this convention, but his refusal to show up only reinforces the idea that he’s an elitist and he is more interested in collecting big checks in California then being in genuine touch with grassroots activists and people who care about the Democratic Party’s future.”

Eleven of the nearly two dozen Democratic contenders addressed the convention Saturday and three more are scheduled to speak to delegates Sunday. The record-number of presidential candidates taking part in a California Democratic convention comes as the delegate-rich state has heightened importance in the nomination battle as a result of the state assembly’s decision to move up the primary from June to March 3.

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The candidates who addressed the convention made their case to 3,400 delegates and met with liberal activists and union members at smaller forums on the sidelines of the big gathering.

Rivals take a swipe

With the conspicuous absence of Biden, who polls show has a solid lead in California and most other states, some of his top rivals took the opportunity to throw some of their hardest jabs at him to date.

Without naming him, Sen. Elizabeth Warren alluded in her speech to comments that Biden made last month in New Hampshire that once Trump leaves office the nation would see an “epiphany among my Republican friends” who would be more willing to work with Democrats.

“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges,’’ Warren said. “If they dream at all, they dream small. Some say if we’d all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a time of crisis. The time for small ideas is over.”

At the center of Biden’s pitch since announcing his candidacy in April is that he’s the steady hand who can break the partisan “fever” that he says has stymied political dialogue throughout President Trump’s tenure.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg warned Saturday “that the riskiest thing we could do is try to play it safe” and cautioned California Democrats against looking backwards as they consider who to support .

“It’s true for our country, and it’s true for our party,” Buttigieg said. “In these times, Democrats can no more promises to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s.”

Biden in Ohio

Jamal Brown, a national press secretary for Biden, said senior campaign aides were dispatched to the California convention to discuss the former vice president’s bid with delegates and other participants. Biden also had an 11-minute phone call on Wednesday with Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker, the acting California Democratic Party chairwoman, in which he expressed his regrets for being unable to attend the convention and told her he planned to campaign frequently in California in the weeks and months ahead, she said.

The Biden campaign also announced Saturday that he received the endorsement of Hilda Solis, a former Labor Secretary under President Obama and U.S. House member who represented a Los Angeles area district.

“I have seen firsthand what true leadership requires,” Solis said in a statement. “At this moment in American history, it is clear that Joe Biden has all the qualities that the American people need in the White House.”

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For Biden, who is trying to chart a path as the candidate who has the best chance to win back voters who left Democrats in the 2016 election, the California convention was not the most ideal terrain.

A progressive crowd

The convention’s delegates skew further to the left than the typical Democratic voter in California. Last year, the party executive board voted to endorse state senator Kevin de León over veteran incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a moderate Democrat. Feinstein went on to crush de León in the primary contest and was re-elected to her fifth term in the Senate.

Convention-goers on Saturday loudly booed former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper during his speech when he intoned that “socialism is not the answer” and spoke skeptically of Democratic candidate pressing for “Medicare for all.”

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to wind up re-electing the worst president in the history of the United States,’’ Hickenlooper told the convention-goers .

Hickenlooper said in an interview following his speech that he didn’t regret speaking out about his concerns to Democrats and anticipated convention-goers may not be receptive to that element of his campaign message. Nevertheless, he said it’s important for the party to discuss the ramifications of a leftward tilt.

Still, Hickenlooper said he doesn’t hold it against Biden for declining to address what may have been a hostile crowd to a more centrist message.

“That’s his business,” said Hickenlooper, who jokingly added that he might play it safe too if he had Biden’s polling numbers.

Some elected California officials said it was short-sighted for Biden to skip the convention.

“I think it’s a tremendous strategic mistake,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, who has endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris. “There’s been a buzz among delegates of why Vice President Biden hasn’t joined us.”

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, who was a key strategist in the Obama-Biden campaigns in 2008 and 2013, said Biden’s decision not to show up was a mistake.

“These delegates are representative of Democrats in their communities,” Wicks said. “So many candidates are here. It was important for him to show up.”

Ricardo Lara, who as a state senator authored the bill to move up California primary, said he wished Biden had shown. With the state gaining electoral relevancy in the 2020 primary cycle, he said that it will be crucial for all candidates to demonstrate to the party’s base that they’re substantively engaged in California beyond fundraising efforts in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

“But at the end of the day, we have 14 presidential candidates and that’s unprecedented,” said Lara, who is now the state’s insurance commissioner. “Our delegates are very passionate and want to be able to engage every single candidate. I hope he makes time for California and not just like we have seen in the past from other candidates, where California becomes the ATM.”

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