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Fight for Democratic Party Starts in Xavier Becerra's California District

The special election in California's CD-34, previously held by Xavier Becerra, gives an early look at how the Democratic Party will move forward.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) And Democratic House Leadership Hold News Conference On Trump's Rhetoric
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) listens during a news conference to discuss the rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump, at the U.S. Capitol, May 11, 2016, in Washington, DC. (File photo)Drew Angerer / Getty Images

How Democrats will move forward after the surprising victory of Donald Trump already is playing out in California’s Congressional District 34 special election, providing an early look at a strong anti-establishment sentiment and its potential to drag the Democratic Party further left.

Former Rep. Xavier Becerra was long thought to be groomed to be a central component of the new party leadership within the aging Democratic Party that is looking for new stewards. A popular Latino with the pedigree and experience — a law degree from Stanford and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — Becerra exhibited the clean cut, intellectual, progressive Latino alternative to anything that could be thrown at the party by the Republicans; namely Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

RELATED: How U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra May Become the Face of Trump ‘Resistance’

But that changed last November, and California all of a sudden emerged as one of two primary anchors in the progressive movement, along with New York. Now in a defensive posture, California under Gov. Jerry Brown has been busy building up its arsenal against the incoming Trump administration.

The first order of business by Brown was to promote Becerra to state attorney general to replace Kamala Harris. She became the first senator from California to break many barriers with her multi-ethnic background. It was a brilliant counter-narrative by Brown to what many had seen as an anti-Latino Trump: to make Becerra, a Hispanic, the face of California’s defiance against the incoming administration.

But Becerra’s ascendancy to the top lawyer in California brings with it some unanswered questions about the party. A few candidates are vying to replace him in Congress with an eye to sending a message. But which message? Do Democrats in this liberal district want a Hillary Clinton establishment Democrat to continue the progressive, but incremental approach to confronting the Republican Party? Or will they want to pursue a more confrontational agenda that comes with its own pitfalls?

In the first systematic poll from Latino Decisions to target Becerra’s district, an anti-establishment sentiment certainly seems to be a strong pull for the Democrats. With a sample of 400 respondents selected from voter files from Californians with previous primary vote history, the poll is aimed at active political participants in the district and matched to the demographic characteristics of the district.

When prospective voters were asked if they preferred a candidate who worked beside Hillary Clinton, beside Bernie Sanders or neither, a large majority picked Sanders or neither, with 35 percent selecting Clinton, 42 percent going with Sanders and 18 percent saying neither.

RELATED: Rep. Xavier Becerra Accepts Nomination for CA Attorney General

Over half of the respondents agreed that the Democratic Party has too much control over its nominees and feel that Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Four candidates seem to be emerging as favorites in the district out of a crowded group of 12: Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez; former Los Angeles Unified School District board member Yolie Flores; Sara Hernandez, a former aide to powerful Los Angeles City council member Jose Huizar; and Arturo Carmona, a plucky Sanders strategist who made a name for himself by putting Sanders on the map in massive California.

Each candidate comes with a slew of endorsements and access to big money. For instance, Yolie Flores was an important and loyal operative for former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s attempt to reform LAUSD, the city’s behemoth school district. Flores moved on to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in what some saw as a reward for her loyalty to Villaraigosa.

“Overall, it is too early to expect the voters to be familiar with any of the candidates, but the two early favorites appear to be Gomez who has solid Sacramento ties and Carmona, who has the Sanders connection,” said Matt Barreto, principal at Latino Decisions and a professor at UCLA.

“Between these two, Carmona appears to be a better match with the current mood of the voters, and Bernie Sanders remains overwhelmingly popular in CD-34,” Barreto said.

Gomez already has some impressive endorsements, notably Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senate Leader Kevin de Léon and Hilda Solís, the powerful county supervisor whose district is almost three times the size of a congressional district at nearly 2 million constituents. Mayor Garcetti is a fixture of Los Angeles politics, a former city council member and the son of two-term city attorney Gil Garcetti, whose name became a fixture in the media during a tumultuous decade in the 1990's, which encompassed the O.J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King trial and the ensuing social upheaval that tore the city apart.

Seen to be popular and a favorite to possibly run for governor when the 78-year-old Brown resigns, Garcetti's endorsement is as good an indicator as any that Gomez is the definition of a party establishment candidate.

And perhaps a sign of things to come was an Assembly District Election Meeting recently held in Gomez's district that resulted in a strong slate of Bernie Sanders supporters as Assembly District Delegates (ADDs), according to the popular insider political website at MayorSam. ADDs are local representatives that work with the community and act as an official party conduit between the constituents and state representatives, with important functional and representative roles that can heavily influence the future leadership of the district.

As such, popularity within the establishment may not be enough in CD34, with many displeased by the party’s performance outside of California. Sanders became a favorite in CD34. The heavy Latino presence in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and El Sereno along with a strong Asian presence in Koreatown and the posh enclave of Mount Washington made CD34 not only ethnically diverse but an economic beachhead for the Sanders campaign.

Arturo Carmona thinks this diversity is an asset to his campaign message. “There’s no question that this district is a very progressive district,” he says, “it’s a young district with a changing Latino and white population that is going through a tremendous economic transformation; whether it’s gentrification or wealth disparity, fighting the establishment is resonating here.”

Ultimately, Sanders won Becerra’s district against Hillary Clinton by a slim margin but was notably the only majority-Latino district that Sanders took from Clinton.

“If Carmona can swing an endorsement and L.A. visit by Sanders, that would be huge,” said Barreto.

The campaign may ultimately be a race to claim the anti-establishment label against Gomez. When told that Hernandez was behind Gomez and Carmona, Arielle Yuspeh, Hernandez’s campaign manager rejected the poll itself.

“This is a classic establishment tactic: cook up a meaningless early poll in an attempt to drown out other voices,” she said. Instead, Arielle pointed to an anti-establishment message the campaign feels will resonate better with the voters. “Voters aren’t looking to play musical chairs with politicians, whose same establishment answers failed miserably against Donald Trump -- they want new, genuine leaders that fight for our neighborhoods like Sara Hernandez, a former teacher and non-profit leader who advocates for our community, not the powerful,” said Yuspeh.

The Trump victory cut deep with Sanders supporters, who argued that Clinton was a poor candidate against the right populism of Trump. Many felt that the best counter to Trump was a similarly populist leftist like Sanders.

The Trump loss is surely to hang around the neck of anyone unfortunate enough to be labeled the establishment candidate, which may indicate why Brown has yet to announce a date for the special election.

The sooner the special election is held, the fresher the sting of Trump's victory will loom in the background of the campaigns. Whether that invigorates the party establishment more or less than the upswell of discontent by the hardcore party progressives is yet to be known.

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