California Could be ‘Lifeline’ for Women Candidates Trailing Bernie Sanders

March 2, 2020by Julia Prodis Sulek, The Mercury News (TNS)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate in Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Tuesday wasn’t supposed to be a battle for second place.

Julie Cecilio and her friends aren’t making campaign calls and knocking on doors this weekend, just days before California’s presidential primary, to help ensure a woman is second on the Democratic ticket.

The time has come for a woman president, they say, and California was supposed to be an on-ramp to the road to the White House — not another speed bump.

“I’m really surprised and frustrated,” said Cecilio, 52, an Elizabeth Warren supporter who has joined monthly meetings of activists and participated in each Women’s March since President Donald Trump was elected. “We’re basically back to white men who are 70-plus. It’s the same old story.”

The Golden State overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, rallied in support of Palo Alto professor Christine Blasey Ford during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings, helped usher in the “women’s wave” in Congress in 2018 and has a history of electing powerful women to national office. Hello, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

But heading into Tuesday’s primary, despite strong performances in recent debates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is clinging to a distant second place in most California polls after being tied for first just five months ago. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota moderate who received endorsements from major California newspapers, is polling in the single digits. Harris’ campaign flamed out months before her home-state primary, as did New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s.

Whether any woman remains in the presidential race — Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is still running but no longer qualifying for the debate stage — may be largely determined by their performance in Super Tuesday’s Democratic primaries in 14 states, with Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden building momentum. And California — with the largest number of delegates at stake — could be the turning point.

“Certainly for Amy Klobuchar, the path to a nomination is looking very, very challenging at this point,” said San Jose State University political science professor Melinda Jackson. “But for Elizabeth Warren, California could be her lifeline.”

Warren, who filled Laney College auditorium in Oakland in May with more than 6,500 supporters and visited a home child care center in San Jose in December, appears undaunted. At a CNN Town Hall in South Carolina last week, she said that if the frontrunner doesn’t earn a clear majority of delegates, she is prepared to take her fight to the floor of the Democratic convention in Milwaukee this summer.

“I’ve done a lot of pinkie promises out there,” she said. “So I’ve got to stay in this. I told little girls, ‘We persist.’”

Second place is not what women were aspiring to this time around, especially after they helped upend the 2018 midterm elections by ushering a female-driven Democratic majority into the U.S. House.

“It’s not that I’m a pessimist,” said Kate Schatz, an Alameda author and activist. “But we can’t expect a recent wave of activism, which in large part is a reaction to Trump’s election, to be utterly transformative.”

For the 2020 Democratic nomination, several factors have worked against women. The field of candidates — at one point reaching more than two dozen — has been unwieldy, splitting voters among numerous candidates and making it difficult to consolidate support. With a similar progressive agenda, Warren has faced an uphill climb trying to wrest away Sanders’ supporters who have shown tremendous allegiance since the 2016 race and allowed Sanders to capitalize on his name recognition, organizing apparatus and donor list.

At the South Carolina debate last week, Warren took on Sanders directly.

“She did the classic comparison women can relate to — ‘Yeah, you talk a lot, and I put my head down and do the work,’” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Politics and Women at Rutgers University. “That was the first time we saw that head-on confrontation.”

Warren’s campaign reignited after the Las Vegas debate a week earlier, when she ripped into Bloomberg’s poor record with women and minorities.

Still, the “electability” question that dogged candidates of color continues to hamper women in the race, with some fearing that the pendulum is swinging too far back after the backlash to the Obama presidency and Clinton’s miscalculations led to Trump’s election.

Some see the electability question, in part, as sexism in disguise.

“Women have been a good investment for Democrats, so this notion that women somehow aren’t electable, there’s no data to back that up,” Walsh said.

Ironically, she said, “there’s a good chance Democrats will elect Bernie Sanders, perhaps one of the most electability-challenged candidates.”

Some Warren supporters in California, however, are watching Sanders’ surge and considering making a strategic switch.

“I do know a lot of women who are strong supporters of Elizabeth Warren who are feeling a lot of pressure to vote for Bernie in the California primary,” Schatz said. “The narrative now is that he’s got the lead, he’s got the momentum, and I think people worry about diffusing that momentum and splitting that progressive vote.”

Schatz still plans to “vote my conscience” with Warren, but even so, “I don’t buy that if you’re a feminist activist, you must support the female candidate. In my circle, we’re making sure we have a strong progressive candidate to stop Trump and resist someone like Bloomberg or Biden.”

Although the women candidates are struggling in the presidential primary, there is reason for optimism, said Alison Dahl Crossley, associate director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

“I know the movement will keep going,” she said. “It will have moments of surging and clear success and other moments when it feels that success isn’t as evident as a lot of feminists would like.”

It can take “a really long time to upend gender hierarchies,” she said, but the #MeToo movement, the conviction of Harvey Weinstein and the discussion of sexual harassment and nondisclosure agreements on the presidential debate stage are all encouraging cultural shifts.

At the same time, the number of women seeking seats in Congress continues to rise and there is promise for more female representation in state legislatures, said Walsh from Rutgers.

“The presidency continues to look elusive,” Walsh said. “I do hope that at the least, if there’s not a woman at the top of the ticket, that whoever the Democratic nominee is will have a woman on the ticket with him.”

To aspire to the vice presidency is nothing transformative, however. Geraldine Ferraro joined the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale in their unsuccessful race in 1984.

But Cecilio from San Jose isn’t giving up on her vision of a woman sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office this time. While Sanders was holding a rally on Sunday in San Jose, she will be walking door to door for Warren.


©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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