LOS ANGELES—Usually when a presidential hopeful shows up in this city, it is to ask for money at a private event, not to hold a rally. This past weekend was different.
All but one of the biggest names in the Democratic field descended at once on Los Angeles to woo party leaders and activists before the start of a state convention in Long Beach. Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke to youth at a trade college at a labor event downtown. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders held a raucous rally for supporters at a high school on the predominantly Latino Eastside. California Sen. Kamala Harris hung out with drag queens at a historic gay bar in Long Beach. (Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar met with supporters at a craft brewery up in the Bay Area.)
California is a long way from Iowa, and not just geographically. The Democratic Party holds supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Recent immigration is woven into the fabric of the culture: Half of California children have at least one immigrant parent. Around a quarter of DACA recipients live in the state, and around 14 percent live in L.A.
Pete Buttigieg, a political moderate, may have taken a commanding lead among likely Democratic caucus-goers in the Hawkeye State, according to a poll released Saturday, but here, where the electorate is in a progressive mood and issues like Medicare for All and the breakup of Immigration and Customs Enforcement are big crowd-pleasers, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren remain in the lead.
Biden, who has come under criticism from Latino Democrats for aggressive immigration enforcement during the Obama years, left town before the convention. Warren, who has backpedaled recently from her support of Medicare for All, pushing the proposal back to Year 3 of her first term, skipped it as well. Biden was in Nevada, Warren in Iowa, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Their conspicuous absence led moderator Jorge Ramos of Univision News to ask Harris if the Democrats weren’t “taking the Latino vote for granted.”
“I’m here,” she said. “I think that you have to judge people by their conduct and their actions.”
On the other side of the country on Friday evening, Barack Obama himself warned a roomful of liberal donors in Washington against “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds, or the activist wing of our party.” On Saturday night, Sanders brought down the house at a forum in Long Beach by challenging the premise of Obama’s remarks. Ramos had asked Sanders if the deportation of 3 million undocumented immigrants under the Obama administration was a mistake. “Yes,” Sanders replied.
Earlier at the same event, Ramos had put the same question to Harris. But Harris, whose successful Senate bid in 2016 Obama had endorsed, wouldn’t say if it was a mistake or not. She did, however, relate how as California attorney general she had informed local law enforcement that honoring ICE detainers under Obama was not mandatory.
Harris has slipped in the polls of late, both nationally and in her home state. She has shifted her campaign forces to Iowa in a bid for a strong showing in the Feb. 3 contest.
Julián Castro, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, said at a separate forum on Latino issues on Sunday that if elected president he would “break up ICE” and fold enforcement responsibilities into the Department of Justice.
Castro previously called on his Democratic opponents to support striking a federal provision from 1929 that makes improperly entering the country a misdemeanor crime, rather than a purely civil offense. The distinction gave the Trump administration the power to separate thousands of families in 2018.
Most Democratic presidential hopefuls have expressed support for repealing the statute, known as Section 1325. It is one of the more pronounced turnabouts from the last year of the Obama presidency, when immigration offenses like illegal entry and re-entry comprised a majority of federal criminal prosecutions. Sanders, who is counting on support from young Latinos here to carry the state primary on March 3, said “What has happened in recent years is there has been criminalization of border crossing. I don’t believe in that.”
Buttigieg continued to echo the concern of the centrist wing of the party: that a far-left nominee could alienate moderate Republicans and independent voters needed to defeat President Trump. “Being bold and having big ideas should not be measured by how many people you alienate,” he said at the Univision forum. He added that the ideas that make up his agenda “would still make me the most progressive president of my lifetime.”
According to a poll of California voters released this month by Capitol Weekly, Warren leads the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls at 27 percent, with Sanders in second at 21 percent, and Biden and Buttigieg occupying the third and fourth spots, at 18 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Harris is in fifth place at 6 percent.