LOS ANGELES — By the thousands, an army in knit caps and well-worn “Bernie” T-shirts kept coming down Figueroa Street downtown — past the dejected hoops fans in 76ers jerseys leaving the Staples Center, undaunted by their iPhones beeping alerts about Pete Buttigieg leaving the presidential race or a seeming surge for rival Joe Biden.
By 5 p.m., more than 20,000 of them had filled in the blank spaces on the hard concrete floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center, chanting “We Want Bernie!”, roaring at the sometime corny jokes of 94-year-old comedy icon Dick Van Dyke, and making a political statement simply by size of their throng: That anyone else dreaming of the Democratic nomination will have to somehow part this blue Pacific Ocean of Bernie Sanders’ voters.
The road to the White House in 2020 is paved with voters like 24-year Cynthia Marshall, a digital marketer who moved to North Hollywood five months ago with no savings and $20,000 in college debt. Nonetheless, Marshall — holding a “Unidos con Bernie” sign, at her third Sanders rally — has been donating $3 every month to the Vermont senator’s campaign because that’s the cheapest button on his website, another drop of water in the candidate’s February flood of $46.5 million.
“We’re here for the political revolution that is a progressive, left-leaning platform,” her friend, 37-year-old writer Koelen Andrews, chimed in. Moments later, Sanders — his white hair more fussed than usual, at his third pre-Super Tuesday rally of a long day — took the stage to belt out his greatest hits on reforming what he called a racist criminal justice system, only ad-libbing one line that spoke to the realpolitik behind the big L.A. rally.
“The candidate who wins in California,” Sanders intoned, “has an excellent chance to win the Democratic nomination!” For a 78-year-old democratic socialist who normally scorns TV-type political punditry, Bernie nailed it. A huge — yuuuuge?? — win and delegate haul here in California might turn Biden’s Saturday South Carolina landslide from a game-changer into a mere historical footnote.
After five sunbaked days occasionally interrupted by a chilly Pacific breeze, I can tell you that Super Tuesday is both everywhere and nowhere in this vast, Zen-like state. I tried to organize my thoughts with a pilgrimage to a depressingly sacred spot in American politics, especially for anyone old enough to remember the era when dreams of radical change were snuffed out again and again by assassins’ bullets. I visited the former site of the Ambassador Hotel, on Wilshire Boulevard on the edge of L.A.’s Koreatown.
The iconic Mediterranean-style hotel was closed and demolished a generation after the most famous and tragic night in California politics, when Robert F. Kennedy won the state’s decisive primary on June 5, 1968, only to be murdered seconds after his victory speech, as he shook hands with workers in the Ambassador’s kitchen. The hotel soon after fell into disrepair. The dilapidated property was even owned by Donald Trump — who lost a ton of money on the deal, of course — for a time.
Today, a school has been built in the hotel footprint and middle-aged men played baseball on a field of green. Yet the 4,400-square foot Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park along Wilshire is anything but inspiring. Underneath stirring quotes from RFK and Latino labor activist Cesar Chavez, the concrete space is covered with litter, including a deck of playing cards scattered everywhere. In late afternoon, several men were splayed across the concrete near a half-dozen tents, the same sight you see on freeway overpasses all over L.A.
The spot where a gunman killed Robert Kennedy — in many ways the last credible American politician to talk about poverty, who said “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil” — is now a homeless encampment, one of literally hundreds that pockmark the nation’s second-largest city.
When California dreamin’ was synonymous with the American dream, marketed to the Pepsi Generations as endless summer and GTOs, the road to the White House passed directly through California. RFK’s epic 1968 campaign of mobbed parades through the streets of Watts and East L.A. did produce something of a sequel in George McGovern’s 1972 youth-fueled, nomination-clinching primary win here. But McGovern was trounced by the first of two very different Californians — Richard Nixon, paving the way for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s — who ended any war on poverty to bring “law and order” for the middle class.
Post-Reagan, the nation kept moving right, California took a sharp left turn, and the state — whose primary now came too late in the new Iowa-New Hampshire-Super Tuesday era to matter — became a lot less relevant to presidential politics. The 2020 move to Super Tuesday — three months earlier than past cycles — seeks to change that. It came just in time to benefit the two candidates poised to capitalize on the Golden State’s youth and its affordability crisis: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders.
The politics out here are a worse fit for former Vice President Joe Biden, whose large win and dominance with African-Americans in South Carolina may have come too late to make much difference in a state with 415 pledged delegates, far more than any other. The Delawarean has just one office (in East L.A.) in the entire state — which was padlocked when a New York Times reporter visited last week — with no presence on TV, or anywhere else. One post-South Carolina poll released Sunday did suggest a big enough Biden bounce to win a few delegates in California, but far fewer than Sanders.
Even so, Biden should outpoll Mike Bloomberg, who’s spent an astronomical $50 million-plus on advertising in California through his carpet-bombing TV and radio campaign, with ubiquitous billboards near freeway overpasses and his mailers overflowing mailboxes. Yet the most recent surveys suggest it won’t net Bloomberg a single delegate.
On Friday night, I went over to a seafood restaurant in Chinatown where Team Bloomberg staged a public event featuring the candidate’s longtime partner, the former New York State banking superintendent Diana Taylor. Slicked-back elected officials — some of whom have benefited from Bloomberg’s largesse over the years — crammed onto the stage behind her, while underneath red Chinese lanterns more journalists worked the room than the turnout of maybe 30 or 40 business leaders.
“Why not?!” Pedro Chen, a 73-year-old retired medical-clinic manager from Monterey Park who emigrated from Macao in the 1960s, told me when I asked if he was supporting Bloomberg. “He’s a big-shot businessman from New York. I believe he’s the only one who can defeat Trump, right?” Chen added he was pumped by rumors that Bloomberg would consider businessman Andrew Yang as a possible running mate.
Looking out the window from Ocean Seafood, the snow-peaked San Gabriel Mountains in the distance made the Bloomberg event feel like a speck in this massive state where more than 5 million Democrats voted in 2016. That also pointed to the challenges facing Warren, who is clearly popular in California but struggles against the hipper branding of the Sanders movement.
At the Massachusetts senator’s Southern California headquarters, a windowless 6th floor office space in a Koreatown office tower, about 20 volunteers gathered Thursday night for phone banking and a pep talk from veteran activist Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. Although Warren has taken heat for a somewhat inconsistent stance on Medicare for All, many of the volunteers said high family medical bills are what motivated them to get involved with her campaign; most said their friends are torn between Warren and Sanders.
“I have a big belief we have to do something about climate change quick, and I believe Elizabeth Warren is the kind of person to get stuff done,” Sarah Rogers, a 30-year-old Pittsburgh native who lives in Koreatown and writes books and screenplays. “She’s got a combination of a strong vision and the know-how of how to get that vision done.”
California may gave Warren — who was flying here Monday for an 11th-hour rally in East L.A. — enough delegates to justify a deeper stay in the Democratic race. But no one has worked the Golden State harder than Team Bernie, which claims more than a million voter contacts and even organized marches to early-voting polls Saturday in neighborhoods like Venice and East L.A.
Among the throng at the L.A. Convention Center, voters told me that Sanders’ lifelong embrace of various forms of socialism — which has terrified leading, more centrist Democrats in key swing states such as Pennsylvania — is a feature for them, not a bug.
“Before it was more taboo to be a socialist, but now it’s more mainstream because of Bernie,” Andrew Pio, a 27-year-old Orange County government worker from Anaheim, told me. “Most people, young people, are earning really low wages, you can’t really survive off that. I think his $15 minimum wage would help people all over the United States.”
Jessica Ceballos, a 42-year-old tenant-rights activist from Highland Park, watched from the far back while her husband, Tad Campbell, carried their 2-and-a-half-year-old son Sebastian on his shoulders. She said her work in housing helped convince her to move from her longtime Green Party leanings into the Sanders camp. “He’s the only one who’s pretty adamant about universal rent control, which is important. And he’s talked about abolishing ICE …"
“Bernie’s been fighting for this … he’s not changed, ever,” Campbell, originally from Boston, chimed in. Minutes later, Sanders took the stage — framed by huge American and California flags — and proved Campbell right. He promised the sea of supporters that under a Bernie Sanders presidency, America would see the legalization of marijuana and end cash bail and raids by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in heavily Latino neighborhoods. “I will not allow the continued demonization of immigrants,” he thundered.