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California Democratic Party
Chairman John L. Burton
Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg
Assembly Leader John Pérez
Founded 1850
Headquarters 1401 21st Street, Suite 200, Sacramento CA 95814
Ideology American Liberalism
National affiliation Democratic Party
Color(s) Blue

The California Democratic Party is the local branch of the Democratic Party in the state of California. It is presently chaired by veteran Democratic politician and former United States Representative John L. Burton, who succeeded Art Torres in April 2009. It is the majority party in both chambers of the California State Legislature, i.e. the State Assembly and the Senate.


The history of the California Democratic Party in California is varied. The Party has at times been a powerful majority party and, at other times, been divided and ineffectual.

When California was admitted as a U.S. state in 1850, the California Democratic Party was the majority party. The Party controlled the State Senate, the Assembly, the majority of the delegation to the federal House of Representatives, one United States Senate seat and the governorship. However, in five short years, a series of internal conflicts such as slavery and the Kansas Lecompton Constitution developed which weakened the party and allowed defeat by the Know-Nothing Party, with J. Neely Johnson elected governor and Know-Nothings making considerable gains in the state legislature.

In 1861, railroad man Leland Stanford was elected governor as the newly formed Republican Party swept into power. For the next twenty years, the Republicans and railroad interests controlled California politics. Political groups to the left of the Democratic Party mobilized against these forces and succeeded in winning a few elections. Then, in the early 1880s, the California Democratic Party joined in the battle against overreaching corporate power. This strategy succeeded and the party captured the 1882 state general elections.

The Democratic Party maintained its anti-corporate position through the turn of the century. Elected in 1894, Governor James Budd embarked on an ambitious reform agenda to challenge the railroads, notably the Southern Pacific's monopoly, yet was bogged down by a hostile Republican majority in the Legislature. Budd would be the last Democrat to be elected to the governorship until 1938. For the next 30 years, Republicans held a dynasty over the governorship, though the Republicans too were met with internal conflict regarding reform and pro-business factions. Then, in 1906, the pro-railroad wing of the Republican Party retook the governorship with railroad candidate James Gillett. Voters opposed to the railroad and governmental corruption turned away from both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party. The party's formation itself was part of growing Progressive movement.

The power of the Progressives blossomed. In 1910, Republican and Progressive leader Hiram Johnson was elected governor. Similarly, Progressive-sympathetic politicians gained a majority in the California State Legislature During Johnson's administration, a number of political reforms were enacted. These reforms were aimed at eliminating governmental corruption by weakening the power of political parties. The reforms included: the direct primary, the initiative and referendum, non-partisan local elections, regulatory agencies, and candidate cross-filing on the primary ballots of more than one political party.

The Progressive reforms were successful in weakening the California Democratic Party. However, the Progressives power declined rapidly, with the formal party dissolving in 1916 and the conservative wing of the Republican Party recaptured the governorship in 1922 with the election of Friend Richardson. During this period, the Democratic Party suffered a three-to-one voter registration disadvantage to the Republican Party.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected United States President. The New Deal was inaugurated, and by 1934, voter registration in California equalized. Upton Sinclair, a former member of the Socialist Party of America, won the Democratic Party's nomination for governor that year, but his candidacy was ultimately sabotaged by more moderate Democrats. By 1936, the California Democratic Party gained a three-to-two voter registration advantage. Supported by this strong foundation, the Party swept the 1938 elections and liberal Culbert Olson was elected Governor.

Olson's term as governor was rocky. Responding to pressures from his constituents on the left, Olson lost the support of conservative Democrats. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans organized in opposition to Olson, resulting in the election of Republican Earl Warren to the governorship in 1942.

Warren was elected Governor of the State of California for three consecutive terms, in 1942, 1946, and 1950. Successfully exploiting the cross-filing provision enacted by the Progressives, Warren won his nominations for re-election on both Republican and Democratic party ballots. The popular governor left office only when he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1953. Republican Lt. Governor Goodwin Knight filled the remainder of Warren's term as Governor and in 1954, Knight was elected governor in his own right. Near the end of the Warren era in California, a measure passed requiring cross-filing candidates to list their party affiliations passed. This enabled the Democratic Party to reclaim its nominating process and Democratic registration increased. At about the same time, Democratic activists were organizing into clubs and the powerful association of these clubs, the California Democratic Council (CDC) was formed. Consequently, in 1958, the California Democratic Party rode back into power. The Party captured a United States Senate seat, control of both state houses, and all executive offices except the Secretary of State. Victory that year is often credited to the decline in cross-filing, the power of the CDC, and the personal popularity of the newly-elected Governor, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.

In 1959, a law to prohibit cross-filing was adopted. The Democratic Party swept the 1962 elections, with Pat Brown being re-elected Governor over former Vice President Richard Nixon. Soon, however, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights began to emerge as the major political issues of the day. Division of opinion over the United States' involvement in the war arose within the California Democratic Party. The CDC splintered on the issue, and in 1966, Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Brown in the governor's race.

The Republican Party held sway in California until 1974, when Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. was elected. Brown came into office shortly after the Watergate scandal hurt the Republican Party throughout the United States and resulted in an upsurge in Democratic registration in California. Jerry Brown served two terms as governor. His 1982 defeat in a bid for United States Senate and Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley's defeat for Governor, signaled a resurgence of Republican power in California. Mayor Bradley's second defeat for Governor in 1986, coupled with Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential loss in California, saw the decline of Democratic registration.

In 1992, California was hurting more than most states, from a national recession. The Cold War had ended and the public was disenchanted with the Republicans' 12-year-hold in the White House, and 10 year domination of the governorship.

The California Democratic Party began re-organizing in 1991 and in 1992, won the greatest victories in the history of California—not only with President Clinton winning California's 54 electoral votes—but also with the election of two women Democratic U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Even though redistricting (reapportionment) was executed by a Republican State Supreme Court, California Democrats in November 1992 had increased their margin at all levels—Congressional, State Assembly and in the State Senate.

In 1992 Democrats increased their registration by 1.13 million while the Republicans only increased by 522,641. This ratio of two-to-one had not been accomplished by Democrats since 1976.

In 1994 California Democrats suffered a setback by losing the governor's race for the fourth time in a row, and the Democrats became a minority in the State Assembly. However despite $29 million spent by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Huffington, Democratic incumbent U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein won re-election.

The 1996 elections proved to be a dramatic turnaround from the results of 1994, as President Bill Clinton won California's 54 electoral votes for a second consecutive time. Three Republican Congressman were also defeated, including Bob Dornan in the former conservative stronghold of Orange County. In addition, California Democrats also regained the majority in the State Assembly while adding to their majority in the State Senate.

1998 was a banner year for California Democrats. An overwhelming majority of Californians elected Gray Davis, the first Democratic Governor in 16 years and re-elected U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Six of eight candidates for statewide constitutional offices won including Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides, Controller Kathleen Connell and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. In addition, California Democrats increased their majority in the State Assembly from 43 to 48 and also in the State Senate from 23 to 25.

In 2000 not only was Senator Dianne Feinstein reelected by 20 points, but Democrats increased their margins in local races. Congress +4 (32 Dems - 20 Reps) and State Senate +1 (26 Dems - 14 Reps) and Assembly +4 (50 Dems - 30 Reps). Also Republican State Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned in disgrace. Governor Gray Davis appointed Harry Low giving Democrats 7 out of 8 Constitutional officers along with 2 U.S. Senators.

Holding off a national Republican trend in 2002, California Democrats won all eight statewide offices for the first time since 1882. Governor Gray Davis, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and State Treasurer Phil Angelides were all re-elected while Steve Westly was elected State Controller, Kevin Shelley was elected Secretary of State, John Garamendi was elected Insurance Commissioner and Jack O'Connell was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

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