San Diego Superdelegate Jess Durfee on Biden vs. Bernie

Jess Durfee was a sea of calm in an ocean of Democratic angst Super Tuesday. He’s not worried about a brokered convention fight between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

A former chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, Durfee is one of more than 700 “superdelegates” who would help pick the party’s presidential nominee if someone doesn’t win in a first-ballot vote.

He’s been an elected member of the Democratic National Committee since 2008 (and the only one south of Los Angeles, he notes).

“If it’s down to two, one of them is going to get 50% plus one before the convention most likely,” Durfee said at the Democratic Watch Party at The Westin Hotel downtown. “I don’t think there’s going to be a bunch of people holding back just to force an open convention.”

Democratic National Committee member Jess Durfee of San Diego monitored results at watch party at The Westin. Photo by Ken Stone

Speaking before Mike Bloomberg left the race (and joined the chorus of ex-candidates endorsing Biden), Durfee and other party leaders surveyed by Times of San Diego also didn’t think the Democratic-Socialist Vermont senator would be a “drag” on down-ballot candidates.

Durfee, who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, shared two theories.

“One is Bernie is exciting the crowds and going to drive up turnout in a large universe of voters that we haven’t typically seen,” he said. “They’re not just going to show up and vote for Bernie and then go home. They’re going to do the right thing and vote for the down-ticket folks, especially Congress and the Senate because they realize how critical that is.”

But if the nominee ends up being Barack Obama’s vice president, he sees the same result.

“Those folks are going to be very concerned about who’s controlling the Senate and who’s controlling the House of Representatives,” Durfee said while watching results in a fourth-floor ballroom.

Durfee said a Biden campaign would be different, but both the former veep and the current senator have the potential to prevail.

“Thankfully, Donald Trump has given us that flexibility, and the current state of the fluctuating economy due to the … coronavirus is not good for Donald Trump,” he said. “He’s a passive leader at best, and in situations like that you need a dynamic leader, and I think that opens the door for us as well.”

How would Durfee vote if neither Biden nor Sanders could win nomination on first ballot?

“Most likely, I will go with the candidate that I think has demonstrated the really popular support in the country. … in terms of winning states — the margins by which you win those states,” said Durfee, the DNC chair of the Western Region Caucus.

If a few states are toss-ups, he said, he’d probably give less weight to those.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (with Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, her husband, in background) endorsed Elizabeth Warren and campaigned for her in Nevada. Photo by Chris Stone

“Today we saw Joe Biden win in a number of states that Democrats historically have not competed well in,” he said. “So what does that bring to the table? … I’m going to be looking at those battleground states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Arizona.”

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the current county Democratic Party chair, isn’t worried about Democrats being painted as “Socialists” if Sanders is at the top of the ticket in November.

He noted that Rep. Mike Levin in the purple 49th District, who helped flip Orange County blue in November 2018, received a campaign boost — from Sanders.

“Sen. Sanders campaigned for him pretty hard last time,” said Rodriguez-Kennedy, a Clinton delegate to the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia. “He did that rally in Oceanside.”

But Levin, facing a purple district, still needs a strong Democratic turnout to win a second term in Republican Darrell Issa’s former district, he said.

“He’s depending on San Diego because … that part of Orange County tends to be wealthier, more upper middle class — which tends to favor Republicans,” he said.

Rodriguez-Kennedy says he’ll seek to become a Sanders delegate this time. But he also could become a superdelegate after 2020 — also known as unpledged or automatic delegate. He’s a candidate later this month for a seat on the Democratic National Committee when the 372-member state party executive board meets in Visalia.

But he said: “Even if I’m elected to the DNC, they don’t take office until after (the convention) — assuming we have superdelegates, because I don’t particularly like them.”

(The state board will elect 20 to the DNC from a field of 40, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine.)

On a night when she’d crush her GOP challengers in the 80th Assembly District, Lorena Gonzalez said: “You know, Bernie Sanders is very popular in my district. I think he won my district. … I’m not worried at all about it.”

Former San Diego Councilman David Alvarez agreed that Democrats running in San Diego County wouldn’t be hurt by anti-Socialist sentiment.

“Our political [district] lines are drawn a lot clearer,” he said. “The 53rd District is very much a Democratic district. The [50th] is very much a Republican district, but it came very close [in 2018]. You have to wait to see what the turnout was today, too.”

Alvarez said a convention fight appears to be the intention of Sanders and Biden, “and even Elizabeth Warren.”

“But I have to admit as an observer of Democratic politics that I thought Bernie Sanders was going to do substantially better tonight, and that he basically was going to be kind of unstoppable. Clearly, the voters are in a different (mind-set). It was shocking.”

Nancy Casady, a Green New Deal advocate who challenged Rep. Scott Peters from the left, disagreed that Sanders would be a drag on Democrats.

“I think when you really cut through whatever’s happening right now and look at the policies that Bernie offers, …. I think he is the candidate in fact that … can beat Trump, and I think he has the energy even though we don’t have the full picture yet.”

She said of Biden and climate change: “I have no idea what his program is. I think that’s going to easily be countered when Trump goes after him.”

Still, she said: “You know, we say at this point — no matter who, we’re voting blue. And I think that’s where we need to focus.”

Casady was a distant third Tuesday in the 52nd District, taking 13.4% behind incumbent Peters’ 48.4% and Republican Jim DeBello’s 35.7%.

“I was gratified,” she said. “We were aiming for a double-digit finish, and it looks like we’ll do just about that. At that level of protest vote … against the incumbent, it’s significant that people are growing more concerned about the Green New Deal and the solutions it offers.”

Former Councilman David Alvarez (left) greets outgoing Councilman Chris Ward at Democrats’ watch party at The Westin. Photo by Ken Stone

Alvarez was defeated by Kevin Faulconer in a 2014 run for San Diego mayor and by Sean Elo in a 2018 race for a seat on the San Diego Community College District board. He even considered a run for county Board of Supervisors in the 1st District. (“I had an account” for fundraising, he says.)

But at 39 he still has the public-service bug — and serves on several nonprofit boards, including Camarada, which puts on chamber music concerts to “help engage with disconnected communities.” Also: Circulate San Diego, the Kim Center for Social Balance and he’s president of the PTA at his daughter’s school.

Would he try for elective office again?

“When you are able to be in public service, and it’s so rewarding, I think that feeling doesn’t go away,” he said. “After lots of prayer and just reconsidering where I was in my life, … I determined that my focus needed to be somewhere else.”

But like Bernie Sanders in 2018, he’ll never say never.

“It’s very clear to me that if the right opportunity opened up that I would not just dismiss it, that I could definitely consider it,” he said. “But there’s nothing whatsoever planned at this time.”