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Byline: Tony Castro

Staff Writer

Once a bastion of old guard conservatism, the San Fernando Valley has become a hotbed of progressive activism that appears to be re-energizing the Democratic Party base in the county and state for the 2008 presidential campaign year.

Activists have already moved into positions in the party's important county and state central committees, which have traditionally been the seats of power from where old guard leaders have controlled money and volunteers for political campaigns.

"A lot of new blood got involved in 2004," says Democratic activist Chad Jones of Granada Hills, an executive board member of Valley Grassroots for Democracy. "We're not old guard. We don't have a history. We don't know how things are supposed to be.

"We go our own way and not how the old guard does things, but what works for us."

Last year, that new blood of progressive activists in the Valley might even have scored its biggest coup to date -- helping lift Democrat Debra Bowen to victory in the race for secretary of state.

Operations on behalf of statewide office candidates by the progressive- controlled Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley -- an umbrella for about 25 Democratic clubs -- logged in more precinct walking, more phone banking and more campaign activities than any other party organization.

Volunteers manning Valley phone banks made more than 100,000 phone calls to voters alone.

Bowen and party leaders credited the Valley activists and their work for her 448,203-vote advantage in Los Angeles County -- more than her margin of victory in a tight race she won by 3 percent, the closest race statewide.

In the Valley, a sampling of voter precincts found Bowen consistently running ahead of other members of the Democratic statewide slate.

"We like to take credit for getting Debra Bowen elected," says Damian Carroll of Lake Balboa, recording secretary of the DPSFV and past president of the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats. "It was Los Angeles County that took her over the top in the entire state. We take a lot of pride in that."

In the upcoming presidential election, Valley activists are hoping to duplicate their yeoman campaigning by taking their message on the road, where they hope to influence the vote in politically pivotal states.

"I'm sure we'll also have (volunteers) going to Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, swing states where you can drive and be here in a few hours," Jones says. "We had buses going in 2004 to Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, and we had people on their own going as far away as Florida."

Generational change

Overall, political observers think the progressive activism in the Valley might be a reflection of the demographic, sociological changes that have taken place over the past generation: an influx of younger, moderate voters; the aging of the Valley youth of the 1980s; and the outward migration of some older constituency together with the continuing growth of the Latino vote.

"In many ways, the changes that the San Fernando Valley has undergone in the last generation is a microcosm of America," political consultant Bill Orozco says. "And if you're involved in politics, it's impossible not to take note of activism among younger Democrats in the Valley.

"They've become a model for what progressive Democrats are trying to do in other parts of Southern California and the rest of the state."

In recent years, a slew of increasingly active Democratic political groups have emerged in the Valley, with the Valley Grassroots for Democracy -- which was created out of John Kerry's 2004 presidential defeat -- leading the push for progressive change within the party.

In July, Democratic Party State Chairman Art Torres joined Bowman in personally thanking Valley activists for their work in 2006 at an awards dinner honoring volunteers from all the Valley Democratic groups.

"The party is listening," Jones says. "We've managed to get ourselves into the party. We learned the secret handshake. Once you've figured that out, then it's easy getting elected to the central committees or to get on committees by appointment or into caucuses. Once in on those, then you're voting."

In the world of behind-the- scenes political operations, the state and county central committees operate those organizations -- being responsible for recruiting, training, helping to finance, and delivering volunteers for campaigns for political offices.

Many of those committees also assist in organizing their county for federal, state and local office campaigns.

Jones himself has been elected to the Democratic Party's State Central Committee and also sits on the executive board of the state party. Parker is on both the state and county central committees.

Carroll, a state Assembly field representative, has also been a delegate to the L.A. County Democratic Central Committee and Democratic State Central Committee.

Carroll, for one, thinks the rise of progressive activism in the Valley might even predate the 2004 presidential campaign.

"I think, in a way, 9-11 woke up the desire in a lot of people to get involved in a more meaningful way," he says. "What has crystallized in lot of folks who are upset with (President) Bush is that they could do more than just turn out and vote every two years -- that between elections they could work as volunteers, work on campaigns, spread the word on the Internet and on the ground and maybe become candidates themselves someday."

Labor protests

That activism has also gone beyond traditional political involvement and into labor protests, once an arm-in-arm staple of the Democratic Party.

Earlier this year, the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats promoted a boycott of all Circuit City stores over the layoff of 3,400 workers. Valley Democrats have also been involved in Habitat for Humanity homebuilding projects and packaging gift bags for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Although some of the activists are individually members of the Progressive Democrats of America that formed after the 2004 Democratic National Convention, their activism as part of political groups in the Valley is not directly connected to the Progressive Democrats or the Progressive Caucus in the state party.

Nevertheless, local activists insist their work is raising eyebrows nationally.

"The epicenter for the progressive movement is right here in the San Fernando Valley," says Brad Parker of Sherman Oaks, chairman of the Valley Democrats United. "It was born out of a certain frustration with elected officials, and what we're doing here is spreading across the country."

Divided loyalties

The upcoming Feb. 5 primary, though, brings with it an awkward pause for most of these activists. Their loyalties are split among several Democratic candidates, and most of the Valley clubs have a moratorium on endorsing anyone in a primary with the richest prize in the land.

In the primary, 370 of the state's 441 national delegates are at stake -- and the party's nomination will still be up for grabs.

The remaining 71 delegates are members of Congress or party members who will be officially unpledged when they arrive at the national convention in Denver in August.

Activists say they do not want to lost sight of their ultimate goal -- a Democrat becoming president -- by risking division through an internecine primary fight.

Agi Kessler of Woodland Hills, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, says it was that kind of unity after the 2004 primaries that helped propel the Valley's progressive activism four years ago.

A supporter of onetime frontrunner Howard Dean in the 2004 primary, Kessler found herself in early meetings with supporters of other candidates -- and ultimately laying down a mantra they all agreed upon. "I said, 'The most important thing for us to do is to get a Democrat elected president,'" she recalls. "We can either go our separate ways or we can unite behind the nominee."

Out of that campaign sprung the Valley Grassroots for Democracy, of which Kessler became president.

"That was only the start," Kessler says. "We now have another challenge ahead of us."


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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 26, 2007

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