The California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Saturday was marked by the ongoing conflict in Gaza, as speakers and demonstrators urged party leaders to call for a cease-fire, a progressive position that has split Democrats.
The forum was disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted the on-stage interviews of Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff and tech executive Lexi Reese, three of the U.S. Senate candidates vying for the party endorsement. Rep. Barbara Lee, the only major candidate who supported a cease-fire, was the only one of the three lawmakers who did not face the protesters’ wrath.
The incident highlighted how Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has become a contentious issue for Democrats, creating a rift between many grassroots voters and leaders — including President Joe Biden and top congressional hopefuls — who have opposed calls for a cease-fire. Activists said they would cast their ballots next year based on how Democrats handle a war that has claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians since Israel launched its counteroffensive in response to an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants.
“We are the ones who elect the people who occupy those seats right now,” said Veronica Boulos, a Sacramento State University student who is involved in party politics and helped organize the demonstration. “We will ensure in November that they represent us and listen to us.”
The conflict in Gaza has also influenced the race for an open U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Schiff and Porter have rejected calls for a cease-fire, while Lee has demanded it as a sign of her progressive credentials.
Democrats will conduct a convention vote this weekend on a Senate choice, but it is doubtful that Schiff, Porter or Lee will secure 60 percent of the vote, the endorsement requirement.
Porter and Schiff have followed the Biden administration’s stance, which has shifted to support humanitarian pauses to deliver aid to civilians in Gaza but has not endorsed a cease-fire. Despite increasing pressure from the left, including at their own-state convention, neither has asked Israel to stop its military operation.
“Our constant duty is to emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself, but also the need to make every effort to safeguard innocent civilians. … And I think the administration is urging Israel to do precisely that,” Schiff told POLITICO in an interview. “I back the administration’s efforts in that regard.”
The Israeli government’s efforts to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza were questioned by Schiff, who deferred to the administration’s judgment on the matter.
Lee, a vocal opponent of the war in Afghanistan since 9/11, used the Israel-Hamas conflict to highlight her progressive credentials and distinguish herself from her rivals in the Senate race, who have been leading in polls and fundraising.
Spriggs, a convention delegate, said she supported Lee over Porter because of their different positions on the conflict. She said she lost faith in Porter when she found out she did not support a cease-fire, which made her question Porter’s progressivism.
“Barbara Lee is the only candidate calling for a cease-fire,” Spriggs said. “That’s the right thing to do.”
The convention hall entrance was blocked by about 100 protesters who staged a sit-in and disrupted the speeches of the Senate candidates before the endorsement vote. The protest was mostly peaceful, except for some minor clashes with security. Hicks, the chair of the California Democratic Party, tried to calm the situation by gently reprimanding the protesters and chanting “organize to win.”
The protesters also shouted Newsom’s name, even though the governor was not present at the convention. Newsom had visited Israel shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks and had not called for a cease-fire.
Goldman, a board member of Democrats for Israel California, expressed her disappointment with the lack of consequences for the protesters, some of whom were chanting “from the river to the sea.” She said the phrase was seen by many Jews as a call for the elimination of Israel, while Palestinian activists claimed it was a call for freedom and equality.
Goldman, who wore a “Nice Jewish Girl” T-shirt to represent her community, said the Democratic party usually condemned hate speech against other groups, but had not shown enough support for the Jewish community in the past six weeks, even in California.
The tone of the convention was set by some of the first speakers. Deen, a Muslim leader from Southern California, and Jacobs, a rabbi, called for a cease-fire in Israel and Gaza from the main stage, and received cheers and applause from the delegates. They denounced the abuses by both Hamas and the Israeli government, and acknowledged the lives lost on both sides.
Yang, a spokesperson for the California Democratic Party, said the speakers were not representing the official party position, which was not expected to change. The party’s position on Israel was to support a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders, and the rights and dignity of the Palestinians.
The party had prepared for possible disturbances at the convention and had increased the security measures. This was due to the anxiety of some attendees, who had witnessed antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents at previous protests in the state. Hicks told reporters that the party had taken extra precautions to deal with “a tense moment” in the country.
He also downplayed the possibility of Democrats boycotting the party because of its response to the Gaza crisis.
Hicks said, “There’s a lot of time between now and Election Day in November of 2024.