Dems Day 1: Come Together, Right Now

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Hello, San Diego! (Photo: John Myers/KQED)

SAN DIEGO -- At every turn in the early hours of this 2012 California Democratic Party convention, you could hear party leaders urge the donkey-loving conventioneers to unite and fight. And yet even on day one, there were clear signs that there's a lot for Dems to sort out before it's all over... a lot of debating before they can come together for the election season ahead.

And the issues to debate come down to cash (as in taxes) and candidates.

The tax issue, and which of three separate tax initiatives to back in November, will no doubt get a lot more attention on Saturday. Governor Jerry Brown is scheduled to address the convention in the morning, and will be closely watched to see how he pitches his tax increase measure to the crowd. A lone signature gatherer stood outside the San Diego Convention Center Friday afternoon, using the governor's authorship of the measure as a hopeful draw for Dem signatures.

But everywhere else you looked, there was someone talking about, or pitching, the tax on millionaires being pushed by the California Federation of Teachers and others. Union president Joshua Pechthalt received a pretty good reception as he urged the convention's labor caucus to support the initiative, especially as he noted no tax hit to "working families," unlike (though not said) Brown's combination high-earner income tax/sales tax on everyone hike.

"We think our measure, alone, is the energizing initiative in this coming November election," he said to applause. In other words, the backers believe voters will come out to tax the rich to help balance the budget, and stick around to vote on other issues Democrats care about in 2012.

But others continue to make the point Brown has made -- namely, that multiple tax measures on the ballot will doom them all. Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), an ardent Twitter poster on this point, made it yet again to a millionaires tax initiative volunteer making the rounds in the hallway Friday afternoon. "They all go down," he said to the young man.

The convention goers won't be voting on support for these initiatives; and even so, the party's top dog thinks all of the measures -- Brown's, the teachers union's, and the one pushed by education activist Molly Munger -- should be given a chance.

"You wait 'til they go to the ballot and then you can make a determination," said party chairman John Burton in a taped interview that aired Friday night on KQED-TV's This Week.

Other Dem-vs-Dem fights are also going to get some press this weekend, most notably the handful of contested legislative and congressional endorsement battles. Those, too, weren't hard to miss on the first day -- most notably, the three-way Democratic contest in the 50th Assembly district and the battle of the bulls in the 30th congressional district.

The AD 50 fight's most vocal competitors today were incumbent Assemblymember Betsy Butler, who moved into the new district after redistricting, and Santa Monica activist Torie Osborn. Both made their case, albeit briefly, to the convention's labor caucus -- a must stop on every incumbent and wannabe candidate's schedule Friday afternoon.

Perhaps that was best seen in the first two candidates who made their way to the audience microphones to make a pitch -- warring congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, the marquee matchup in CD 30. Both men rattled off their labor bona fides to the crowd, and were followed by a throng of sign waving supporters.

These and other intraparty fights get heard Saturday evening in district caucus endorsement meetings -- for those districts that didn't settle the matter in last month's early debates.

But again, unity was the message from leaders. In particular, Democrats were urged to focus less on the issues that divide them and more on their common enemy on the fall ballot: the initiative that seeks to rein in political paycheck deductions, the mother's milk of organized labor.

"Are you ready to kick their ass?!" said California Labor Federation executive director Art Pulaski to the crowd.

The answer: huge applause. But first, there may be a few fisticuffs thrown at each other this weekend.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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