State Democrats oppose fracking, favor legalizing marijuana

The Sacramento BeeMarch 9, 2014 

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles while being introduced at the California Democrats State Convention on Saturday, March 8, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)


LOS ANGELES — The California Democratic Party added planks to its platform Sunday calling for the legalization of marijuana and a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.

The platform's adoption, on a unanimous or near-unanimous voice vote, reflected the influence of the party's more liberal wing at its annual convention.

Both positions are at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democratic governor has expressed reservations about legalizing marijuana and faced protests when he spoke here Saturday over his permissiveness of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of oil extraction.

The platform calls for the party to "support the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana, in a manner similar to that of tobacco or alcohol."

The platform change comes a week after Brown criticized marijuana legalization.

"Well, we have medical marijuana, which gets very close to what they have in Colorado and Washington," Brown said last week on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I'd really like those two states to show us how it's going to work."

Brown said he feared advertising and the legitimization of marijuana use could lead to a lack of alertness by the citizenry.

In a speech to delegates on Saturday, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a supporter of legalization, said "it's time to legalize, it's time to tax, it's time to regulate marijuana."

He said, "This is a serious debate for serious people. ... This is not a debate about stoners."

On hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the party calls for "an immediate moratorium on fracking, acidizing and other forms of oil/gas well stimulation" until more restrictive regulations are enacted.

Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer announced Saturday that he would push for legislation forbidding fracking without the approval of two-thirds of the voters in any county where it is proposed.

Opponents of fracking say it pollutes groundwater and does other damage.

Beverly Brown, a delegate from La Mirada, called the marijuana-legalization and fracking-ban amendments "absolutely great."

"I supported it (marijuana legalization) because hopefully it will stop Hispanic and black kids from being put in jail for minute quantities of marijuana," said the 82-year-old retired nurse practitioner.

Fracking should be banned, she said, because "the whole planet needs water that is not toxic to survive."

As California Democrats decamped from their annual convention and dispersed from Los Angeles on Sunday, they looked ahead to the year's elections from a deep-seated position of strength: They hold every statewide office and a supermajority in the Legislature, and challenges to the party's highest profile candidates, including Brown, are marginal at best.

Yet if 2014 promises to be another banner year for the California Democratic Party, its more distant future is less certain. As reliably liberal as California has become in recent years, the party is slowly losing — not gaining — registered voters as a proportion of the electorate.

Democratic registration, now at less than 44%, is a full percentage point lower than four years ago, and more than three percentage points lower than in 1997. Republican registration has sunk far further, to less than 29%, while the ranks of independent voters have swelled.

"You look at it, and people think both parties are full of crap," John Burton, the Democratic state party chairman, said during a patio reception at the convention hotel, The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites. "They have that point of view, some of them."

The Democratic Party remains the dominant apparatus in California elections. It gives millions of dollars to its candidates, and an endorsement can be significant to Democrats competing against one another in a primary election.

But for any number of reasons — disillusionment with partisanship in Washington, the fragmentation of civic engagement and consumer behavior — new voters are increasingly eschewing major parties.

Independents in California now compose nearly 21% of the electorate, up from just under 12% in 1997. Though Democrats or Republicans maintain a plurality of registered voters in every county, Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc. told convention attendees, "If you just look at the new registrations, the partisan groups are losing the battle."

The losses are felt nationwide. A McClatchy-Marist poll in December found that 41% of registered voters call themselves independent. A Gallup poll put the number at 42%.

"Parties don't have a good image,"said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside. "And all these fights that they have in D.C. are all terribly exciting, and I'm sure all the congressmen get into it in this 'House of Cards' sort of way, but it's just disconnected from the rest of us."

The withdrawal from party affiliation appears to have hurt the Democratic Party less than Republicans, with more independent voters identifying themselves as left-leaning.

In California, 41% of independent voters view themselves as closer to the Democratic Party, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey in August; about three in 10 independents lean Republican.

For that reason, Burton said of the impact on Democratic registration, "I'm not concerned, because by and large they do vote Democratic, and I understand how people could well be disaffected with the way things are going in the country."

But an independent voter who associates with the Democratic Party is not as reliable as one who belongs to it, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University: "That's telling you that they want to keep a little bit of distance from the party. They should be concerned because it means that there's something that's holding them back from declaring themselves to be true-blue Democrats."

In a statewide election in a future year, Cain said, "If the Republicans put the right kind of person up there and they pick the right moment in time, you could easily lose a Senate seat to the Republicans."

Before his speech to delegates over the weekend, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said it is "incumbent on us to make the case" to prospective voters to register with the Democratic Party.

"The most effective case we can make is to talk about what's happened in California over the last four years," Steinberg said. "It's an unequivocal success story. And I'm sorry, people forget how bad it was, how bad the deficit was and how the rest of the country saw California and its inability to govern."

The Democrats, like Republicans, have made outreach to young voters a priority of their operations.

Waiting in line for an event featuring the lieutenant governor and vocalists Wilson Phillips on Saturday night, Michael Morag, a senior physics major at the University of California at Los Angeles, high-fived a friend and said of the party's registration losses, "We'll win it back."


The reporter can be reached at or (916) 321-1215. The Los Angeles Times contributed.

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