Over the weekend, Orange County Democratic Party delegates will gather at a local union hall in Orange to vote on whom the party will endorse in this year’s elections.

But this year something else is happening beyond a customary vote. There is an urgency and anger among labor leaders and other activists in the party that is turning this election-year ritual into a referendum on the party’s future.

Nowhere is this burgeoning reality more apparent than in the race in the 69th Assembly District, centered in Santa Ana.

Labor leader Julio Perez is running against one of the county’s most senior Democratic elected leaders, Orange County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly. Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez is also running for the post, but the focus is clearly on the Daly-Perez battle.

Daly is the ultimate establishment candidate. With decades of public service — mayor of Anaheim during the 1990s and clerk-recorder over the past decade — Daly pitches himself as a senior leader who can work with the various players from across the political spectrum on a broad range of issues. In other words, he’s a moderate who won’t be marginalized in conservative Orange County.

But moderation isn’t working anymore for labor leaders.

“We’re just finally calling people out,” said Tefere Gebre, who leads Orange County’s Labor Federation. He delivered that message again this week to a packed crowd at labor’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast.

The message from union halls these days, Gebre said, is straightforward: “Are you with the 99 percent or the 1 percent? You can’t straddle the middle anymore,” Gebre said.

Yet the middle is exactly what many senior Democratic party leaders and elected officials say defines the county’s Democratic constituency, especially in the 69th Assembly District.

This is, after all, the area that years ago elected Rep. Bob Dornan (nicknamed “B-1 Bob” for his support of the B-1 bomber and the military in general) as well as Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Blue Dog Democrat.

Other leaders, such as Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro, state Sen. Lou Correa and Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who currently represents the 69th, say the district is solidly moderate.

“In the 69th, you’ve got to be more middle-of-the-road,” Barbaro said.

Barbaro supports Daly. Meanwhile, both Correa and Solorio are arguing to colleagues that there should not be any endorsement given by the party this weekend.

In previous years, labor leaders would have bit their lips, quietly accepted these decisions, then pulled out their checkbooks, geared up phone banks and started walking precincts.

Not this year.

“We don’t think so anymore,” said Gebre. The recession is turning the area into a petri dish for progressives, he said Ironically, even Barbaro told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that the seat was in a Latino district.

The conflict has been simmering for a while. In the 2010 county supervisors race to replace the North County seat of Assemblyman Chris Norby, a similar battle broke out between labor leaders and Daly supporters.

Ultimately Daly pulled out of the race, and labor cast its support behind Anaheim Councilwoman Lorri Galloway.

Daly could not be reached for comment for this article.

After it became apparent that Galloway was not running an effective campaign against then-Fullerton Councilman Shawn Nelson, labor leaders spent more than $1 million supporting a moderate Republican, Anaheim Councilman Harry Sidhu. Nelson won easily.

That race left a bad taste in the mouths of labor leaders. Then 2011 arrived.

It started with an attempt by the Republican governor of Wisconsin to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Then came the effort by Costa Mesa’s Republican City Council to outsource nearly half of the city’s employees’ jobs.

These situations, and others like them across the county, have put union leaders on a wartime footing, and they want the rest of the party to join them.

“We are inserting a soul into the party, we’re not leaving the party,” Gebre said. “The old days are over.”

Last week, during the Orange County Young Democrats endorsement vote, that battle spilled  into the open as never before Senior labor leaders, like Nick Berardino of the Orange County Employees Association, heatedly debated with Barbaro about whether the future of Orange County’s Democratic Party lies in the middle.

Perez, who is well-known among the party’s younger activists, ended up walking away with the endorsement from the Young Democrats.

“This county has changed,” Berardino said. “America is gripped by a recession skyrocketing unemployment and the greatest shift of wealth in the nation’s history. So I think the assessment that the district remains moderate does not reflect the rapid change of attitude of working Americans.

“The party and elected officials have got to be a much louder voice for the growing number of Americans who have been pummeled by this extensive economic tragedy.”

Yet elected leaders like Correa and Solorio insist that central Orange County and the 69th Assembly District isn’t where that progressive voice will emerge.

“As an elected official, as a candidate, my goal has been to support the voters, not a special interest group. I don’t look at scorecards to guide my votes,” Correa said. “I look at the needs of my constituency.

“I’ve only been living in this district for 50 years. Every time I go to church, I look at my constituents in their eyes. They just finished electing me by the biggest margin of my career.”

Both Correa and Solorio call themselves “pro-job” Democrats, and they say their constituents want things like enterprise zones, which offer tax incentives in specific areas for employers to hire workers.

“I’m up here with a job focus,” Solorio said. “That means on some tough votes, I’m going to go with the side that creates jobs.”

Solorio attributes the intensity of this year’s primary to the usual interest group jockeying.

“Interest group politics in Sacramento are interesting,” Solorio said. “Labor, environmentalists, trial attorneys, they want people to be 100 percent, and guess what? In the real world, there are disagreements. Sometimes you need a compromise.”

Yet labor leaders say they’ve had enough of compromise, especially in areas like central Orange County where, they say, developers and other corporate interests like the Walt Disney Co. have exploited local communities without offering residents input or sharing the wealth.

Take enterprise zones, which both Solorio and Correa support. Perez questions whether the zone have really done much for local communities.

“I don’t believe that tax credits for major corporations create jobs,” Perez said. “They should be doing more for mom-and-pop businesses.”

“Is Disneyland going to move anywhere?”

In many ways, Perez isn’t just running against Daly or Martinez. He’s taking on the county’s most senior Democratic elected leaders and their establishment.

“I think I’ve revived another option for people to be progressive in Orange County and changed this dynamic. It’s not the Orange County of your parents or grandparents. It’s a different district.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantna.

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