Gov. Jerry Brown outlined an optimistic political agenda for California Democrats at their party's annual convention Saturday, pitching his accomplishments and goals as he sidestepped an internal party squabble about whether Democrats should support his tax initiative or those being offered by two other Democratically-aligned groups.
Brown discussed high-speed rail, education reform and the Dream Act for illegal immigrant college students during an enthusiastic address in San Diego. He said Democrats are poised to capture a two-thirds majority in the state Senate and said he hopes they also can retake Congress.
He also promoted his aggressive stance on alternative energy, saying he will not be deterred by critics.
"We're going to keep innovating. We didn't get here by being conventional, status quo, doing what everybody does. California has been number one because we lead," Brown said to cheers.
Many were waving signs that said "We're With Jerry" — an apparent reference to his November ballot proposal to raise the state's sales and income taxes temporarily to help fund education and local services. Brown has raised at least $2.2 million for the initiative and has begun a signature-drive to put it on the ballot, but he barely touched on the issue in his speech.
Brown told more than 2,000 Democrats they would "get your marching orders soon enough." He declined to answer reporters' questions after his speech.
Outside the convention center, about a dozen supporters of a ballot proposal that would raise the income tax rate on millionaires handed out pamphlets on the proposal and asked Democrats to join their signature drive. The California Federation of Teachers proposed that initiative and is supported by the powerful California Nurses Association.
"We're getting tons of support," said Kelly Mayhew, 47, an instructor at San Diego City College who was holding one of the petitions and handing out stickers supporting the proposal. "People are pretty fired up to do something. We're running a really positive campaign, and we feel really good about it."
A separate proposal by attorney Molly Munger, the daughter of a top executive with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is pushing a proposed initiative that would increase income taxes across-the-board on a sliding scale and raise $10 billion annually for 12 years. Her initiative is supported by the California Parent Teacher Association.
The three tax initiatives have been proposed to address California's chronic budget problems, which include a $9.2 billion deficit that lawmakers must close in the coming fiscal year.
They also have divided the Democratic Party's political support groups. For example, the state's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association, supports Brown's plan, not the one offered by the smaller teachers union or the other one supported by the PTA.
Democrats returning from lunch also were greeted by a gauntlet of about 100 Occupy protesters who voiced various complaints and carried signs protesting military spending. They chanted "Don't just watch us, come and join us," and other slogans.
Many Democrats, some sporting buttons saying "We are the 99 Percent," stopped to chat with them.
Despite disagreement over the November tax initiatives and the protesters outside, California Democrats are in a buoyant mood this year.
They won every statewide office in 2010 and are expecting to gain more legislative and congressional seats this year.
An independent redistricting process has given the party the opportunity to gain a two-thirds majority in the state Senate, enough to raise taxes without Republican votes, and created a number of up-for-grabs seats in the nation's largest congressional delegation. Those include several seats Democrats think they can seize from Republicans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the audience earlier Saturday that those California races will be central to the party's national strategy for regaining congressional seats they lost two years ago.
"Our state will prove critical to electing a Congress to work with our president instead of a Congress obstructing his every move," she said.
Pelosi said she expects California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas to leave the party only about a half-dozen seats short of a majority in the House. She declined to predict how many seats she anticipated picking up, saying only that she would be happy with the 25 needed to take control from Republicans.
California's congressional delegation now stands at 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed the Democratic leader's remarks, saying Americans already have rejected her leadership.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is seeking re-election to a full fourth term this year, and other high-profile Democrats also addressed the convention on Saturday. They included state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.