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Jessica Morse wins contested endorsement from California Democratic Party

By: Graham Womack, Staff Writer
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When Jessica Morse learned Saturday that she’d cleared the 60 percent of delegate votes needed to secure the California Democratic Party’s endorsement in her run for the state’s 4th Congressional District, it didn’t end the drama for the weekend.

Because Morse received 44 of 67 delegate votes at the state convention, held last Friday through Sunday at the San Diego Convention Center, she fell just shy of the 66 percent support needed to prevent anyone from challenging her endorsement during a floor vote Sunday.

Supporters for two opposing candidates, Regina Bateson and Roza Calderon then attempted Saturday evening to gather the 300 delegate signatures needed to challenge the endorsement. While this effort ultimately proved fruitless, it led to an incident that showed how heated the Democratic race has become – and how divided it remains.

The incident 

Kara Aley, a volunteer for Bateson’s campaign said she’d just started gathering signatures with a Calderon volunteer when she was approached in short succession around 8 p.m. Saturday by Tuolumne County delegate Deborah Baron and El Dorado County delegate Daniel Stephenson, who each yelled at people not to sign her petition.

Aley said that in attempting to read her name badge during the incident Stephenson touched her sweater. Stephenson said he didn't recall doing this but that “if I did, I had no intent to.”

Stephenson said he later spoke with a security guard summoned by Aley and another volunteer, though it doesn't appear enforcement escalated beyond this.

San Diego Police Department and convention center security spokespeople said there were no arrests or reports filed. The state Democratic Party also retained its own security firm for the convention, United Security, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Bateson wrote in a Facebook post of an “instance of physical assault – which resulted in intervention by security guards.” Aley said she didn’t consider the incident to be physical assault, but that "it was uncomfortable closeness." She said Baron and Stephenson both acted wrongly and that their behavior didn't seem to be isolated.

"I would just like this not to happen anymore," Aley said.

Baron disputed that her or Stephenson's behavior constituted harassment, saying it was allowable within the bylaws for the California Democratic Party. Baron also said Aley had gotten in her face after Baron had attempted to dissuade delegates from signing Aley's petition.

Baron said she witnessed Stephenson and Bateson supporters arguing.

“There was no assault, there was no harassment,” Baron said. “Argument? Yes, there was an argument.”

Stephenson also said the behavior was allowable.

"There were a lot of hurt feelings, maybe a lot of tensions but we did what was within our rights," Stephenson said.

Still, in the days following the convention, Morse, Baron and Aley would all reach out to Aley in an attempt to make peace.

Morse said she called Aley “to see if there was anything I could do to be supportive and helpful.” Morse denied that her campaign played any role in orchestrating or engaging in the incident.

“I want to make it clear to everybody that that’s not a standard we try to uphold,” Morse said.

Neither Baron nor Stephenson appeared to have been Morse volunteers, Aley said. Stephenson said the opposition to the signature gathering was loosely planned by delegates.

At Morse's behest, though, Baron and Stephenson each called Aley to apologize after the convention. Baron said she told Aley, “You know what, we were all tired... It's very likely that we all said things we shouldn't have in the heat of the moment.”

Stephenson said that, in general, the different campaigns haven't been doing a great job of communicating.

“I don't think either side through this process has heard each other,” Stephenson said. “I think each side right now is in the process of trying.”

Among the people Aley tweeted at in the days following the incident was Christine Pelosi, chair of the party’s Women’s Caucus, who spoke by phone with the Press Tribune.

“When it comes to a pressure time (in a political campaign), we can all take a word from the recovery community: HALT,” Pelosi said, referencing an acronym that suggests people pause when they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

El Dorado County delegate Lori Godsey Anzini said she didn’t witness the incident but that “each candidate needs to rein in their surrogates.” She stressed, however, that these kinds of arguments are a normal part of the political process.

“Whatever happened at the convention happens all the time,” Anzini said. “It is not unusual.”

Tuolumne County delegate Elaine Hagen said it was important her party unify around an opponent who could defeat McClintock.

“I know it’s going to get ugly in November,” Hagen said. “For God’s sake, I don’t want it to get ugly in February.”

For her part, Aley said she was putting the incident behind her and that "we should focus on defeating Tom McClintock. I would say that to everybody."

Only the latest flare-up

Ultimately, it was only the latest incident in a primary race that’s intensified since Morse received 55 percent of the vote at a pre-endorsement conference in January. That signaled Morse – who’s raised more money than any Democratic candidate in the district since 2008 – as most likely to receive her party’s endorsement.

In recent weeks, Morse has faced a Sacramento Bee story suggesting she’d embellished her decade of experience working in the federal government as a national security strategist. Bateson and Calderon also released a joint statement Feb. 22 urging that the party endorse no candidate ahead of the June 5 primary.

Morse said she stood by her work record and that she was hanging tough through the attacks.

“It’s really allowed us to practice and prepare for what we’re going to get from McClintock,” Morse said.

Bateson and Calderon have each indicated in Facebook posts since returning from the convention that they intend to stay in the race. They had previously promised to abide by the party’s endorsement.

Calderon, who received four votes from delegates at the state convention, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Bateson defended remaining in the race after getting 13 delegate votes.

“I think that most people here don’t vote according to what the state-wide and national Democratic Party thinks,” Bateson said. “I think people here want a representative who’s a homegrown, independent leader. I think they want to vote for a person of good character, that they can trust and I think that’s why I’ve seen an outpouring of local support since the convention.”

As it stands, the primary could feature five candidates, including McClintock and another Republican, 26-year-old Roseville resident Mitchell White.

Under state law, the two candidates who receive the most votes June 5 will, regardless of party, appear on the ballot for the general election Nov. 6.  In other words, if Morse, Bateson and Calderon split the vote in June, McClintock and White might receive the most votes and make the November ballot.

Anzini, who voted for Bateson at the convention, said she was supporting Morse now though she wouldn’t ask Bateson to drop out of the race.

“It’s going to be up to the voters in June,” Anzini said. “But the Democratic-endorsed candidate is Morse.”