On the verge of potentially one of the closest presidential elections ever, Orange County Democrats gathered on Sept. 17 at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, and even though the event lasted more than three hours, President Barack Obama seemed forgotten. None of the more than a dozen speakers spent significant time rallying the party faithful for Obama. No Obama banners flew, and no glossy Obama literature was distributed.
That's not to say there wasn't enthusiasm for the president's re-election at the sold-out 18th Annual Truman Awards Dinner. Outside the Sequoia Ballroom, two animated college students tried to sell Obama 2012 campaign buttons and stickers. The response? Tepid.
Lobbyist extraordinaire Christopher Townsend, whose firm enjoys lucrative, government contracts from California public entities controlled by fellow Democrats, won the Richard J. O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award and, when he wasn't thanking a long list of elected officials for their generosity, lectured a prop he'd brought onstage: an empty chair symbolizing an out-of-touch Mitt Romney. As with Clint Eastwood, Townsend—who was born on the day JFK won the White House—rambled at times, but he gave the night's most partisan speech.
"We've got the values," said Townsend. "We've got the things people want. We don't chase the voters. We give them what they want."
The evening was as far as you could get from Ayn Rand, whose arguments advocating selfishness are furiously guarded by an institute in nearby Irvine. Rabbi Michael Mayersohn opened with an invocation that would have infuriated the author. "We must build a more just and equitable society," said Mayersohn. "We must create a society in which we all care for each other. Yes, we are expected to be our brother's keeper. The welfare of our enemy is even our concern."
Sharon Quirk-Silva, who nabbed the Harry S Truman Award, continued the theme. The Fullerton mayor declared the battle between Republicans and Democrats to really be a fight over "me versus we" philosophies. She has assembled an impressive, energized group of volunteers and is hoping to defeat incumbent state Assemblyman Chris Norby.
Party boss Frank Barbaro flew in California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom as the affair's keynote speaker. The super-telegenic, super-ambitious, former San Francisco mayor enjoyed favorable attention from those attendees who bothered to stop chatting, drinking cocktails and clinking forks on plates during his remarks. He began by thanking state Senator Lou Correa, the Orange County man who introduced him, for his successes "in a place where it's tough to be a Democrat." But he quickly turned to policy.
"I want to start with a number I hope all of you will remember," said Newsom. "That number is 2,011,000. That's how many people in California are actively seeking a job who cannot find one."
You might not think that dismal fact would be something to highlight given that Democrats occupy all of the state's constitutional offices, as well as enjoy majorities in the senate and assembly. But, for this crowd, Newsom whittled the statistic into a positive by declaring unemployment as "the fundamental issue of our time."
If Republicans would have laughed dismissively, the left-tilting audience responded with applause that became heartier when he declared that the answer to joblessness is additional government spending—oops, investing—in green and high-tech jobs and education. His goal, he says, is to make California a stronger economic power by focusing on "IT and globalization."
"In 2005, Facebook is not there," Newsom noted about the contents of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's book That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind In the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. "Twitter in 2005 was a sound. Clouds were in the sky. Apps were things you filled out to get into college. Linkedin was a prison; 4G was a parking space, and Skype, for most of us, was a typo."
The list produced the expected audience delight. In fact, those were Newsom's best lines. Too bad they weren't his. He'd swiped the points—changing only a word or two—from Friedman, who spoke them during a Sept. 6, 2011, National Public Radio interview on All Things Considered.
Thievery wasn't what bothered party loyalists, who told me they've heard Newsom give the same speech several times. If true, voters should remember the lack of original effort the next time he seeks election-day support. After all, as the lieutenant governor knows, OC turnout can determine the winner in a statewide race, especially a primary battle that might involve California Attorney General Kamala Harris. There are almost double the number of Democrats here than in the state's progressive bastion, San Francisco.
Besides Newsom's lackluster performance, there were two other surprises at the dinner that featured an attack on Proposition 32, which would devastate public-employee-union influence in elections while strengthening corporate power. Party activist Melahat Rafiei managed to auction a Bill Clinton autographed book for a $650 contribution to the central committee, and the most appreciated speech was that of the least-trained public speaker, Joe Kerr. The longtime Orange County Professional Firefighters Association lobbyist who retired as the group's president in March brought in a living prop—his adorable, young son—while he delivered fiery remarks after winning the Samuel Gompers Award.
"All women and men deserve the right to work, live and retire in dignity in this country," said Kerr, an instrumental player in keeping county GOP officials from inflicting massive layoffs on firefighters over the years. "President Kennedy once talked about a rising tide lifting all boats. Nobody ever prepared us for a receding tide and that once it ebbed, the middle class would be targets of political fire, labor attacks and daily persecution from the right."
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With his son tightly gripping his award and looking up at him in awe, Kerr continued, "One moment you're working-class heroes doing your best to serve and protect America. The next moment you are to blame for everybody's lot in life. So, I ask: Since when is it acceptable in modern-day America to blame your child's kindergarten teacher, your neighborhood fireman, your family nurse or your local cop for the worst recession in American history?"
Fifty-eight tables—many loaded with union members, criminal-defense lawyers and other liberal activists—gave Kerr the most spontaneous applause of the night. For outsiders, the lines might not be potent, but this is a place where the local Republican Party passed a 2010 rule forbidding its candidates from aligning themselves with unions representing deputies, teachers, cops and firemen.
"If history tells us anything, [it's that] as goes organized labor, so goes democracy," he added. "End of story. So, we can't give up now—certainly not in Orange County."
You couldn't count the number of back pats and handshakes Kerr received. Yet there was a putrid elephant in the ballroom that nobody dared mention. Local taxpayers are on the hook for more than $10 billion in unfunded pension benefits to retired government employees, some of whom will ridiculously take $200,000 per year for the rest of their lives. At least on this night, in this room, with this crowd, that fact was a satisfying victory—not a dire, looming crisis.