Whither Goest Thou, CDC?

By Les Marsden
Reprinted with permission from the author.

“I have always regarded the California Democratic Council as one of the United States’ most important centers of citizen participation in politics.”

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“I’m not a member of any organized political party…. I’m a Democrat. Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they’d be Republicans.”  

Will Rogers 

California Democratic CouncilIn 1953 the California Democratic Council (CDC) was a brilliant, brand-new idea: a means for the average-Joe/Jane Democrat to be involved with their political party and, hopefully, to influence it. And there was no organization quite like it-for either party. But what caused its birth?

By 1952, two decades of national dominance by FDR’s New Deal Democrats had unraveled – unsustainable with that charismatic President seven years dead. President Harry S. Truman’s popularity was at an all-time low and his re-election campaign itself died following his defeat by Estes Kefauver in the New Hampshire primary. After HST stepped aside, Adlai Stevenson became our Presidential nominee – a new breed of younger Democrat. Prominent liberal that he was, Stevenson really energized the grassroots of the party and his campaign prompted the creation of countless “Stevenson Clubs” of activists. But national tastes had changed, the country had grown conservative and in that 1952 election the GOP pulled off a complete rout. With Eisenhower’s victory in the White House and the Republicans gaining control of both houses of Congress, the Democrats were suddenly party non grata. And be stunned, in the event you didn’t know this: California – our beloved, bright-blue liberal California – had not only a Republican governor but BOTH senators were ALSO Republicans. Fortunately, the excited, activated liberal and youngish California Democrats, which Stevenson’s candidacy had awakened, were dedicated. They had a place to go when – during brainstorming sessions in 1952 and ’53 at Asilomar and Fresno by Alan Cranston and other similarly – inspired Stevenson supporters – the CDC was born. An over-arching organization to help create, encourage and unite Democratic clubs throughout the state. And in only a brief amount of time the CDC’s success was remarkable, as attested to by JFK. 

I first met the CDC in March of 1975 as an 18-year-old. Their annual convention was held in Fresno, and believe it or not (this was at the long-defunct Hacienda complex) there were 4,000 attendees. Wally Albertson (wife of “Chico and the Man’s” Jack Albertson) was elected the CDC’s first female president that year and it was a HAPPENING event! Absolutely remarkable – the amount of activity, enthusiasm (and yes, as ever, disagreement) was astonishing. These were dedicated, activated Democrats, and though the US had departed Vietnam and Nixon had resigned the previous year, they were Democrats fighting FOR something. They were Democrats who still possessed idealism and who still felt they could point our party into its former populist direction from which it had strayed since the stinging loss of the Southern power base following LBJ’s remarkably courageous Civil Rights activism. They were Democrats who believed in the party; Democrats from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I covered the convention for my school newspaper and interviewed Sumi Haru among many others. It was an exciting few days for me. 

But these 40 years since we were introduced (and some 62 years after its birth) the CDC is sadly a shadow of itself, and there are more than a few reasons. Since its decision to no longer require a small annual fee for Club affiliations, I feel many groups have adhered to that old adage of “you get what you pay for” and feel that affiliation isn’t worth the time. It is, of course. But membership has shrunk to an alarming level, with many activist Californians either unaware of the CDC or cognizant of its history and potential future. But in my estimation, the greatest threat to the CDC has been the fact that the Internet has created innumerable organizations as outlets for isolated, individualist activism which allows us to feel as though we’re doing SOMETHING good while we really don’t have to make much of an effort. In our defense, we ARE far busier as a people than we were 50 years ago: life has grown complex while we’ve become more drawn to convenience. I’ve been an officer of the CDC for many years (one of three statewide Trustees) but even so, I wish I had more time to get back into the trenches where I once was. Sadly, the CDC no longer has regular dedicated stand-alone conventions, but now meets during state party conventions, or as in the case of the weekend of this last March 20-22, as a part of other organizational events. In Fresno last month, that was “The People’s Empowerment Summit.” And I’m pleased to say I was re-elected to yet another term as Trustee. I think. I’m not sure because a serious schism has developed in the organization, and the losing Presidential candidate (who had inherited the office) has declared the election illegitimate, proclaiming himself President still, despite having received only three votes. And while “my” side’ s victorious slate has an overwhelming predominance of numbers, one never knows, does one? And there’s life imitating the art of Will Rogers’ observation: no organized party. 

In any event, I do hope that very soon Emilie Gatfield will be accepted by the losing side as our new CDC President. Smart, experienced and a wonderful leader, Emilie may just be the one who can turn the CDC around. What was a brilliant idea in 1953 still is: the CDC has not only a proud past but the promise of a remarkable future. As with our party itself, the best is yet to come. Because sometimes the most brilliant ideas are the ones which have been around the block. 

And also because if we just agreed with each other, we’d be Republicans.