How Democrats plan to rebuild after losing hundreds of seats nationwide

A diverse array of rising stars were creating buzz in Philadelphia this week, from mayors to members of Congress. But the pipeline for developing them has been neglected since Obama became president.

Paul Sancya/AP
Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016.

The dazzling roster of speakers at this week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia covered over a worrying development for the party: It has atrophied in significant ways since Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency in 2008.

In the past eight years, Democrats have lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 11 governors, and more than 900 state legislator seats – and with them, important training grounds for rising stars.

The blame lies in part with the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, laid bare by the WikiLeaks scandal. But some also criticize Mr. Obama for setting up separate organizations to promote his agenda, which competed for funds with the DNC.

So despite Donald Trump running roughshod over the GOP establishment this year, it is in much better shape as a party than the Democrats. Plenty of commentators noted that, while Republicans had a large, diverse set of presidential candidates, the only serious contenders to emerge on the Democratic side were a septuagenarian man and a woman who has been familiar to voters for a quarter of a century.

Still, there were some young Democrats generating buzz in the party, from well-publicized candidates for state office in California to young city council members, and a number of those were in Philadelphia this week gaining national attention. Many of the youngest rising stars among Democrats’ ranks showcase the increasing diversity of both the party and its voters.


Kasim Reed, the African-American mayor of Atlanta, introduced former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wednesday night – a man he referred to as a “friend and mentor” in a rousing and optimistic speech.

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (l.) and Police Chief George Turner answer questions at a press briefing after Mr. Reed met with Black Lives matters protesters on Monday, July 18, 2016, at City Hall in Atlanta. The discussion followed Reed's interaction with protesters on the streets of the city last week.

“I believe we have a responsibility to one another, and to the next generation, to ensure that our opportunity is limited only by our imagination,” said Mr. Reed, who partnered with Mr. Bloomberg on gun control and climate change initiatives.

Several other mayors speaking in Philadelphia are also considered rising stars in the party. Andrew Gillum, an African-American and the youngest person ever elected to Tallahasee’s city commission, at age 23, is now its mayor. He spoke about healing the rift between communities of color and law enforcement.

Paul Sancya/AP
Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016.

"Every day, black parents send their sons out with a deep sense of anxiety, hoping they will return safely. And every day, police officers kiss their loved ones heading to work – holding that same hope and fear in their hearts,” Mayor Gillum told delegates. "In these times of anger and fear, we can't afford retreat to our respective corners. We can't let this animosity grow."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, meanwhile, is thought to be a contender for either the California governor’s race – a showcase for much of the state’s top Democratic talent – or senator, if Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires. Mayor Garcetti can be eloquent and has won political victories around raising the minimum wage and expanding earthquake safety regulations.

Matt Rourke/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti poses for a picture as he walks around the convention floor during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25, 2016.

When he addressed the convention Thursday night, he touted his record in Los Angeles, including making community college free, as well as his heritage – “just your average Mexican-American-Jewish-Italian” – and his ancestors’ struggles.

Finally, there’s Svante Myrick, mayor of Ithaca, N.Y. Elected in 2011 when he was just 24, he became both the city’s youngest mayor and its first African-American mayor. Mayor Myrick leads a city of 30,000, and has a Twitter following of 14,000.

Members of Congress

Two of the people on this list – Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona – share remarkably similar legacies. Both are Harvard alums and served in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps.

Nick Oza/The Arizona Republic
Rep. Ruben Gallego (r.), a state delegate, kisses Jerry Emmett (c.) of Prescott, Ariz., on the cheek during an Arizona state delegation roll call at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Ms. Emmett, who was born before women gained the right to vote in America, announced that the Arizona delegation was casting 51 of its 85 votes for Hillary Clinton for president.

When he spoke at the convention Wednesday night, Congressman Gallego drew on that military service to attack Donald Trump’s commitment to veterans and his rhetoric last year disparaging Sen. John McCain’s prisoner of war status.

“Donald Trump is a man who questions the loyalty of those who serve our country without ever himself serving. That's not patriotic,” Gallego said.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is also an Iraq vet – one who lost both legs, among other injuries, when her helicopter was hit by a grenade. This year, she’s challenging Republican Mark Kirk for his Senate seat.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) of Illinois waves to delegates during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016.

Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota made a name for himself this past year as a passionate advocate for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota speaks during the first session at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016.

On Monday night at the convention he was chosen to introduce Senator Sanders – the final, and most anticipated, speech of the night. Congressman Ellison is the first Muslim elected to Congress.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts also got a key speaking position Monday night. A former student of Sen. Elizabeth Warren when she taught at Harvard Law School, Congressman Kennedy told delegates of being raked over the coals by his former professor when he didn’t know the definition of “assumpsit” – which happened to be the first word in his reading.

Young, charismatic, and energetic, Kennedy has generated lots of positive buzz, though he also faces the daunting challenge of being part of yet another well-known political dynasty.

The next generation of California Democrats

For future Democratic rising stars, some in the party are paying particular attention to the solidly blue state of California, where the old guard is finally retiring.

That includes Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, and possibly Senator Feinstein as well. Both women have served as senators for nearly 24 years.

Among the many names expected to be thrown in the ring for the 2018 governor’s race are several rising stars in the party, including L.A. Mayor Garcetti.

One of the most interesting, according to some Democratic pollsters, is John Chiang, the state treasurer. He earned praise from labor unions six years ago when he stood up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the state budget crisis, who wanted to slash the pay of state workers. If Mr. Chiang wins, he’d become California’s first Asian-American governor.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who served for years as the high-profile mayor of San Francisco – addressed the convention Wednesday, in a well-received speech that harshly criticized Trump and the negative view of America he laid out in his GOP convention speech.

“Trump strangled the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan and replaced ‘tear down that wall’ with the cynical bigotry of ‘build that wall,’ Newsom said.

Paul Sancya/AP
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016.

Newsom’s colorful personal history may limit his future on the national stage, but he could well become the next governor after Brown.

Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, is notable for being a prominent Southern Californian in a state party that tends to be dominated by Northern Californians. The poor son of Mexican immigrants who went on to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he rose to his current job through the Los Angeles City Council and then the State Senate, and it’s possible he could throw his hat into the right for the governor’s race.

State legislature and City Council members

City council members don’t typically get much attention from national political operatives, but at least a couple have started to appear on several lists of rising stars.

P.G. Sittenfeld – whose older sister, Curtis, is a best-selling novelist – was the youngest person ever elected to Cincinnati City Council, and this year launched a Senate bid that attracted significant attention, even though he was ultimately defeated in the primary by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

Michelle Wu – like Joe Kennedy, a former student of Elizabeth Warren’s – is also 31, like Mr. Sittenfeld, and is the youngest current member of Boston City Council. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, she was highlighted by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni last month as a young Democrat to keep an eye on.

And one of the most common political pathways is through state legislatures – one reason it’s so problematic for Democrats that they’ve lost so many seats over the past eight years.

Two Western state legislators who have attracted some national attention include Ruben Kihuen from Nevada and Mike Johnston from Colorado. Mr. Kihuen, a Mexican immigrant, has served in the legislature – first in the assembly, then in the state senate – since 2006, when he was just 25. He won an eight-candidate primary earlier this year for a key House race that’s one of the top possibilities for Democrats to pick up a seat. (And, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has 38 “Red to Blue” candidates they’re zeroing in hopes of retaking Republican seats, Kihuen was the only one to get a speaking spot at the convention this week, on the final night.)

In Colorado, Mike Johnston worked first as an education reformer – he worked for Teach for America and served as a Denver principal – and has already gained prominence beyond his state. In 2010, Time included him in its "40 Under 40" list. He’s finishing his second, and final, term in the state senate, and many expect him to move to a more prominent office.

Attorney generals running for Senate

Kamala Harris, California attorney general and the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican-American father, has been all over the place in Philadelphia this week, even though she never spoke from the main stage.

Currently engaged in a tough battle to fill Senator Boxer’s seat, Ms. Harris is running against another Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez. If she wins – which seems a distinct possibility – many are keeping their eye on her.

Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s former attorney general, is also engaged in a tough Senate race this year to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid – a key battleground race this fall. Ms. Cortez Masto has long been a rising star in Nevada – she was first elected attorney general in a landslide victory in 2006 – and if she wins her race, she’ll be the first Hispanic woman elected to the Senate.

Launching pad

For those rising Democrats who came to Philadelphia this week, many of whom touched on their personal stories in their short remarks, their hope is that the exposure can help propel their careers.

The convention is a frequently a showcase for such talent, though rarely does it create the kind of dramatic momentum it gave to a young Senate candidate named Barack Obama back in 2004. His electrifying performance as keynote speaker there helped launch his meteoric rise: The next time he spoke at a convention it was as the Democratic nominee for president.  

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.