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California Democratic Party State Convention: An Observation

In his classic _Democracy in America_ , Alexis de Tocqueville observed: "Where else could we find greater causes of hope, or more instructive lessons? Let us look to America, not in order make a servile copy of the institutions that she has established, but to gain a clearer view of the polity that will be the best for us; let us look there less to find examples than instruction; let us borrow from her the principles, rather than the details, of her laws. …the principles on which the American constitutes rest, those principles of order, of the balance of powers, of true liberty, of deep and sincere respect for right, are indispensable to all republics" (*1).

This year’s California Democratic Party State Convention was held on February 11-13, 2000 in San Jose. I have been informed of by local activists of peace movement and trade unions, I decided to utilize this opportunity to observe today’s American democracy, even though I was not sure whether I could enter San Jose Convention Center.

February 12 (Saturday) morning would be the climax since both Democratic Presidential candidates Al Gore (Vice President) and Bill Bradley (former U.S. Senator) planned to come to address to three thousand California Democratic delegates. There were also demonstrations and police cars around the building. However, this is not Democratic Party’s National Convention and San Jose is not Chicago. The peaceful site is not beyond my expectation and I judged that I could enter the hall. Rather than joining the demonstration teams outside of the meetings, I directly went to Press Registration room.

After I got registered, I entered the main hall and stepped the center stage for "Press Only." This was my first experience to directly watch and listen to America’s national and local political leaders: Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Bill Richardson (U.S. Secretary of Energy) and Gray Davis (Governor, whom the California Democratic Party wants to be Gore’s election partner), Dianne Feistein (U.S. Senator from California), Barbara Boxer (U.S. Senator from California), Nancy Pelosi (Congresswoman from San Francisco), Zoe Lofgren (Congresswoman from San Jose), Joe Andrew (Democratic National Committee Chairman), Ron Gonzales (San Jose Mayor), Mike Honda (Assemblyman from San Jose), and so on. Experience has taught me that, to sustain our Comparative Policy Research here in Silicon Valley, our institute has to deal with some of such figures. For example, I could not change my Wisconsin driver license to a California one for 18 months until I received the Honorable Honda’s secretary’s assistance.

As long as regarding American domestic affairs, Tocqueville today may observe that the American democracy is still working, and the Democratic Party is more democratic than its counterpart. Actually, American party activity "professionals," such as Clinton’s election advisors, are doing good business by exporting their profession to Russia, East Europe and Latin American countries. Here in California, Democratic Party is the "main stream," and it represents a wide diversity of U.S. citizens. This feature is apparent from the faces of the Party and State officers. The Convention intentionally arranged a six-year-old Filipino girl to sing the American anthem at the beginning, and I noticed that California Democratic Party’s First Vice-Chair is a woman with a Chinese last-name (Alicia C. Wang). Her speech bored the audience, though.

The Convention program brochure still lists the "March Fong makes me happy!" button (1974) as California Democratic Party’s celebrating past even though this former Democratic California State Secretary supported her adopted son Matt Fong (also former California State Secretary) to run U.S. Senator election from Republic Party against the Democratic Boxer in the last 1998 election. I guess Matt Fong would like to run from Democratic Party if he could.

However, for most Democrats, it makes little difference either "our great leader" or "our Bill" will be nominated. Gore is still "the friend of unions in the White House," but he is facing strong opposition from AFL-CIO on issues regarding WTO and China. I usually look on AFL-CIO’s "foreign policy" (such as utilizing Harry Wu to promote human rights toward China) with indifference, but AFL-CIO did play a leading role protesting last year’s Seattle WTO conference. Asian Americans may also expect a softer Democratic administration at White House on immigration issues. Both Bradley and Gore have written to commit their support for the so-called 80 - 20's "Declaration on Presidential Election of 2000" (*2).

As for most American "middle-class," only issues such as gun control and abortion make a Democratic President from a Republic President. Like every president candidates, Bush Jr. and John McCain also talk about education and employment, but every American knows well that their life will not be changed: chances are that they are more concerned of the decisions from their corporate boards of executives or the performance of their mutual fund managers (*3). Nonetheless, compared to China’s state-leader’s replacement process which usually accompanied with national crisis or Japan’s Premier Minister’s election which has no relations with Japanese people at all, this style is more favored by most people. I predict the American democracy still has enough business to do, internationally.

Such a convention with demonstrations per se indicates that democracy in America is working: opposition movement activists still hold expectation to influence the Party and America’s policies through peaceful protestation. However, it becomes tremendous difficult to influence American foreign policy, because the features affecting ordinary people’s life are so complicated and most people do not feel direct interest-conflicts on those issues. Peace activists brought a 10-meter-long black model of Atomic-Bomb in front of the hall gate. The first flyer I received was from a girl. It reads: "86% of Democrats favor reducing nuclear weapons… Why has the Clinton Administration spent $35 billion per year - more than the Cold War average on nuclear weapons?"

Cuba still remains America foreign policy’s headache. The Cuban American Chapters of the Chicano/Latino Caucus also had a desk inside the hall. I simply asked: "Do you requested the federal government let Elian go Cuba home with his father or stay with those exiling rightist in the U.S.?" After I got the former answer, I made my only donation to this convention, even though I myself am an exile from another country.

There are also some environmental activists and activists for death-penalty abolition, which are not the priority of my concerns. A young man, bearing a 2-meter-high ugly portrait of Gore and a slogan "Hey! Gore, You Betrayed Us!" tried to invade the hall. He quarreled with the guards preventing him from entrance: "Is this China? Why we cannot express our opinion here?" They did not bring any flyers, so I could not remember for what reasons they were betrayed by Gore.

Needless to say, the most toughing issue is the U.S economic sanctions on Iraq, for nine years. I recognized a few activists’ faces from San Jose Peace Center or local unions. I greeted every of them. Thanks for their struggle, more than seventy Congress members have signed a letter to President Clinton: "Morally, it is wrong to hold the Iraq people responsible for the actions of a brutal and reckless government. We simply ask you to do what is right: lift the economic sanctions." People may still argue which government, Washington or Bagdad, is more brutal and reckless, to cause "one child dies in every 12 minutes, 250 people die every day, 90,000 innocent civilians perish each year."

Although a local administration does not have effective power to solve this "greatest disaster in the world today," I feel a little pride of Silicon Valley’s administration regarding this issue. The August 31, 1999 Board of Supervisors’ Resolution states: "Now, therefore, be it resolved that Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors urges the lifting of economic sanctions on Iraq, the rebuilding of the Iraq infrastructure and the free flow of humanitarian aid into Iraq without threat of prosecution." It is the highest level of administrative resolution requesting so in the U.S.

The Iraq issue has become the focus and a trail of today’s American democracy on foreign policy. Al Gore and Bill Richardson have participated the Bush/Clinton administrations’ Iraq policy. They certainly heard and saw the protesting slogans but I did not hear one word of "Iraq" from them in the Convention. Will Gore, if elected, correct this tragedy?


*1. Author’s Preface to the Twelfth Edition (1848). The Henry Reeve Text, Vintage Books: New York, 1945.

*2. Gore stated: "America is strong because of its diversity, not in spite of it. That is why I am proud to support the goals of the 80 - 20 declaration, and call upon all levels of business, academia and government to open wide the doors of opportunity to Asian Americans and to all Americans." "If you entrust me with the presidency, I would direct my cabinet officers to investigate discrimination against Asian Pacific Americans in any environment, and to use every means available to combat discrimination where it is found. A Gore Administration would work to lift the "glass ceiling" that unfairly prevents any American from rising to his or her fullest potential. And I would continue the progress that we have made to create an Administration that looks like America -- considering and appointing qualified Asian Pacific Americans for positions at every level of government. You have made our nation stronger, more diverse and more inclusive. As president, I will continue working to empower your community."

*3. Gore also gained half million dollar from Fidelity investment last year.

Jing Zhao, Representative
US-Japan-China Comparative Policy Research Institute, San Jose, USA

Readers's Response

From Betsy Wolf-Graves

I don't know you, Jing Zhao, but good for you! You did a wonderful thing to enter the State Democratic Party Convention. You could see our elected officials in person. Your observations are very refreshing -- trying to understand how our system works. I held a sign for Iraq for a while. I would have held one for WTO, against the death penalty -- None of these issues are discussed by Democrats because -- I don't know why -- I would hate to think that our elected politicians had studied these three issues and decided that it's okay to kill about 4,000 children each week, to murder in the name of the state and to preach free markets, but only for the poorer, less powerful nations and to allow faceless individuals to make judgments affecting the economic health of countries. Good to hear your thoughts.

From Juliette Beck

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You are invited to a historic town hall meeting to share your thoughts on the state of American democracy with a distinguished panel of foreign democracy advocates here to observe the US electoral system. The forum, part of a year-long investigation of the US political system by a team of veteran election observers from around the world, will give citizens the chance to look at some of the most critical issues facing our democracy.
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Sponsored by: Global Exchange, Common Cause of California, The League of Women Voters, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, National Women¹s Political Caucus, National Organization for Women, Fellowship for Reconciliation