Donning yellow-and-green pom poms and holding matching banners, supporters of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee let out a deafening roar as she took the stage at the California Democratic Party convention. “Barbara Lee! Speaks for me!” hundreds of delegates chanted repeatedly Saturday.

But it wasn’t enough for the Oakland Democrat to secure the official party endorsement in the U.S. Senate March 5 primary: None of the leading candidates — Reps. Lee, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and tech executive Lexi Reese — reached the 60% threshold needed, according to results ratified today.

Still, Lee led with 41% — far more than her third-place standing among Democrats in recent polls — while Schiff had 40% of delegate votes and Porter received 16%.

“Our momentum is picking up speed, and tonight’s vote is evidence that our movement is touching people across the Golden State,” Lee said in a statement. “The people want a tried and tested progressive with the record to prove it. I’m ready to deliver.”

But her show of support was overshadowed by hundreds of demonstrators both inside and outside the convention hall, who chanted “Ceasefire Now,” waved Palestinian flags and disrupted the proceedings. They drowned out the remarks of Schiff and Porter, shut down Reese’s speech and compelled party officials to cancel all Saturday night events and step up security for today. 

Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupted the general session at the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Nov. 18, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

In his opening statement this morning, party Chairperson Rusty Hicks called the protest “unacceptable” and vowed to hold accountable any delegates who violated the code of conduct.

“Antisemitism and Islamophobia has no place in our party or in our communities,” he said. “We condemn acts of violence that bring harm to our neighbors and divide us from one another, both here at home and abroad.”

Ceasefire takes center stage

The support for Lee was partly energized by her support for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.   Among the leading Senate candidates, she is the only one to call for a ceasefire, despite activists’ efforts to get the same commitment from Schiff and Porter. When she repeated her stance at the end of her speech to delegates Saturday, she drew waves of cheers from supporters.

In an interview, Lee said a ceasefire is “the only way” to safely release hostages, provide humanitarian assistance and “save civilian Palestinian and Israel lives.”

“The United States has to be able to forge, and be part of, a path toward achieving peace and security for Israel and Palestine,” she added.

Both Schiff and Porter told CalMatters they are calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the war, echoing President Joe Biden’s policy.

“You can both support — as I do — Israel’s right to defend itself, but also grieve the loss of civilian life in Gaza,” Schiff said. “We have to make sure that a terrorist group is not running Gaza and threatening to end any ceasefire as they did Oct. 7.”

Porter said she has listened to ceasefire supporters. “I think it’s really important that we recognize that what we all should want here is a flourishing and successful life for the people of Gaza,” she said. “This is a terrible, costly and heartbreaking conflict. And I respect people’s free speech rights to make their positions heard.”

But Yousuf Bhaghani, a delegate and president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in California, said Schiff and Porter would not answer the council’s call for a meeting or a change of stance. Bhaghani said while he already planned to vote for Lee because she is the only person of color in the race, her ceasefire stance cemented his support.

“It’s important to me because I believe that loss of life on both sides of the fence is unacceptable,” he said. “A leader should not be afraid of expressing, especially the leader who will lead in the U.S. Senate.”

Preaching to the caucuses

The lack of an endorsement was no surprise to Bob Mulholland, a longtime member of the Democratic National Convention and political strategist in California who attended the convention.

“When you have three candidates all spending money, all here, (it is) very very hard,” he said, referring to Lee, Porter and Schiff.

The split vote among delegates signals “a benefit of riches for California Democrats,” Hicks said.

“I’m not worried about division within the party,” he told reporters Friday. “When we’ve got the opportunity to send another California Democrat to represent us in the United States Senate, that’s a good day.”

To solicit delegate votes, the top Democrats bounced from caucus to caucus this weekend.

Addressing the Women’s Caucus, they touted their support for reproductive freedom and stressed the power of female voters. Standing before union members at the Labor Caucus, they emphasized their support for the right to organize and held up signs saying, “I AM A 2024 LABOR DEMOCRAT.”

Rep. Katie Porter addresses the Women’s Caucus at the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

At the Labor Caucus, Porter touted her record of never having accepted contributions from corporate political action committees — donations from company executives and employees. She also rejects contributions from federal lobbyists and executives of banks, pharmaceutical companies and oil businesses — something her primary opponents have not pledged.

“I am not for sale, and I never have been,” Porter said at multiple events during the convention.

Courting union support, Lee emphasized her experience on the picket lines. She advocated for the right to organize as well as a “living wage.” During a forum last month, she supported a $50 hourly federal minimum wage, drawing applause and chuckles from the crowd.

“I’m a legislator. I’m a negotiator. I’m an appropriator,” she said. “But guess what? I am a picket line walker.”

Schiff stressed his endorsement from nine statewide unions, joking that he and his wife, Eve, were the “original union.” He pledged to pass unemployment benefits for striking workers and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act — legislation that would override states’ right-to-work laws.

“When I’m in the U.S. Senate, you will have the most pro-labor senator in U.S. history,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff speaks to the Woman’s Caucus at the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento on Nov. 17, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Outside the Safe Credit Union Convention Center in downtown Sacramento, Schiff’s campaign parked a mobile billboard featuring a topless young Schiff. He held a meet-and-greet with the Nor Cal Carpenters Union on Friday night, telling jokes about his 95-year-old dad in Florida.

At Porter’s event next door that night, her staff passed out swag promoting her whiteboard fame and the campaign invited four Democrats — state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, Assemblymember Alex Lee of Milpitas, Orange County Democratic Chairperson Ada Briceño and National Union of Healthcare Workers President Sal Rosselli — to speak in support.

Lee’s campaign ended Friday night with a drag show three blocks away at The Elks Tower Ballroom.

During the Saturday session, Lee, Porter and Schiff all vowed to support immigration reform, tackle climate change and address inflation. For many delegates, however, it was just a formality.

Cathy McRoberts, a delegate supporting Schiff, said his experience in politics — such as his role on the committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection — is “second to none” and “necessary” in the Senate.

And Carrie Biggs-Adams, a delegate from Calaveras County and a union official with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, said she supported Porter because she is a woman and is younger than Lee.

Porter “can serve there for a number of years and help change that culture and change that dynamic,” Biggs-Adams said.

Congressional endorsements

Delegates did endorse in several battleground congressional races, which could decide control of the U.S. House next year.

In the 47th District in Orange County, being vacated by Porter, the nod went to state Sen. Dave Min on the consent agenda, despite his May arrest for drunk driving that resulted in three years of probation.

“I screwed up,” Min told CalMatters. He said the case has not diminished support for him, noting that the Los Angeles Police Protective League endorsed him a week after his arrest.

In the top-two March primary, Min faces challenges from Democrat Joanna Weiss, founder of the grassroots advocacy group Women for American Values and Ethics, as well as Republican Scott Baugh, who leads in fundraising and narrowly lost to Porter last year.

In other competitive races, such as the 40th District represented by Republican Young Kim, none of the Democratic candidates reached the threshold to win the party endorsement. Only 43 delegates voted in that race, with Allyson Muñiz Damikolas, a candidate backed by the advocacy group EMILYs List, winning 58% of the votes.