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California Democrats, eye on election, adopt activist agenda

California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom casts a shadow on a banner as he speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los An
California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom casts a shadow on a banner as he speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los An

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California Democrats wrapped up their annual convention on Sunday with an appeal to their progressive base even as leaders vowed to stay on a centrist path that has won wide popularity for Governor Jerry Brown and firm control over the state legislature.

Facing the 2014 election season flush with a formidable political advantage in the most populous U.S. state, Democrats used the two-day gathering in Los Angeles to showcase their successes in California and to draw a contrast with partisan gridlock in Washington.

They cited California's improving economy and a newly exerted fiscal discipline that has allowed Brown to pay down the state's debt as proof of Democrats' ability to govern effectively.

"We took a state that seemed to be a punch line for a national joke, and we made it a how-to guide for national governments," incoming state Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins told the crowd.

"The Republicans and their noise machine predicted that we would be reckless and that we wouldn't be ale to restrain ourselves," said Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego. "How wrong they were."

Brown, 75, who is preparing to seek an unprecedented fourth term as governor after yanking his party further toward the political middle, has received much of the credit for the recent turnaround in California's fortunes.

But his insistence on budget austerity as he pressed to repair the state's chronic fiscal woes in the midst of a deep recession often put him at odds with the Democrats' liberal wing.

The push-pull between the party's progressive base and Brown's move to the center was evident throughout the weekend, with some Democrats calling for a more activist stance on the environment and funding for social services.

"I'm going to say something, and it's probably going to get me in trouble, but there are some people who are just too rich," said party secretary Daraka Larimore Hall in a last effort to rally the rank and file before delegates dispersed. "If we don't solve the problem of income inequality we will lose our souls and we will lose our republic."

FROM MINIMUM WAGE TO MARIJUANA

Seeking to bridge that divide, Democrats adopted a platform on Sunday embracing a number of progressive causes, including a call for an inflation-adjusted minimum wage and an end to solitary confinement in state prisons.

The platform also endorsed a proposal by state Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg to establish free preschool education for all 4-year-olds, and called for legalizing recreational marijuana. Both measures have drawn skepticism from Brown.

In a more direct challenge to Brown, the party called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process of injecting water, chemicals and sand into underground shale formations to extract oil and gas.

Brown has supported fracking as a way of easing dependence on foreign oil while creating jobs. Environmentalists see it as a threat to the state's precious aquifers and human health, as well as encouraging the nation's addiction to fossil fuels that have been blamed for climate change.

Brown's speech to the delegates was interrupted on Saturday when about 100 protesters repeatedly shouted "No fracking!" as he began to talk about environmental issues.

The convention comes at a time of almost unparalleled dominance of California government by Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature and all statewide elected offices.

Some 3,000 delegates and guests thronging the Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles heard from rising national Democratic stars such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, as well as other top California officials during the weekend event, including Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Harris, widely expected to seek higher office, urged fellow Democrats to avoid becoming complacent.

"Let's not just be proud. Let's stay awake," she warned. "There is a difference between having a dream and being asleep."

The convention, a little bit Hollywood and a little bit classic party politics, also featured a speech by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom party leaders hope to return to her previous post as House speaker.

At the state level, party leaders vowed to restore their two-thirds majority in the California Senate, which was effectively lost in recent weeks after two members of the body were forced to go on leave - one under criminal indictment, another convicted of eight felony counts after prosecutors said he lied about living in his district.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

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