For almost a century, CYD has played an important role in California politics. The history of CYD is full of fascinating stories and persons. Many prominent leaders in California history – past and present – can trace their leadership beginnings to this statewide network of Young Democrat clubs. CYD is the official youth organizing arm of the California Democratic Party.
The late 1930s was an eventful time for CYD. CYD members organized a campaign to elect Culbert Olson governor in 1938, California’s first Democratic governor of the century. The 1938 CYD state convention in Oakland was an exciting one. Elizabeth Carlson Snyder, who later went on to be the first woman chair of the State Central Committee, served as the 1938 platform committee chair. She presided over a committee meeting that produced two distinct platforms from two groups of YDs supporting two very different platforms. The group supporting President Roosevelt’s foreign policy initiatives eventually succeeded as the official CYD stance. After the convention, CYD voted to deny charters to would-be Young Democrat clubs that opposed Roosevelt’s efforts.
One noteworthy leader of this era was John Emerson Moss Jr., an early President and national committeeman, who later went on to serve in both the California State Assembly and Congress. Moss is best known for advocating the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, however, the early state organization faded away during the war years.
The California Young Democrats experienced a resurgence after World War II. Lionel Steinberg, a young liberal grape grower from Fresno, worked to reorganize the statewide Young Democrats organization. Steinberg had great credibility with established politicians: during the close 1948 Presidential election, he helped organize a last minute whistle-stop train ride through California’s Central Valley that helped Harry Truman carry state by only 17,000 votes – the same margin Steinberg delivered for the Democrats in Fresno County alone. After the 1948 election, Steinberg began organizing young people he had met on the campaign. Steinberg later became the first table grape grower to sign an historic contract with Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers in 1970.
The 1950s witnessed a resurgence of all types of Democratic clubs statewide. In the early 1950s, CYD adopted some unpopular positions, including voting to favor admitting Red China to the UN, and voting to favor repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, actions that almost warranted getting the YD group thrown out of the Democratic Party. However, their commitment to party building never faltered, and during the decade the Young Democrats cultivated a strong statewide network of young liberal activists. The YDs were a powerful group in the party, helping to create the California Democratic Council, a statewide organization of Democratic clubs founded in 1953. CYD leader Joseph Wyatt Jr. served as an officer on the first board of the CDC. At the time, the CDC could endorse candidates for primaries, while the state party itself could not; consequently, CDC endorsements were valuable and eagerly sought. Membership in the Young Democrats provided credentials to the conventions of the CDC. Many familiar names in California leadership were active leaders in CYD during the 1950s, including Phillip Burton, Joe Holsinger, Roz Wyman, Steven Earl Smith, Robert David Cadwell, Dick Nevin, and Thomas Winnett.
As the organization moved into the 1960s against a backdrop of the anti-Vietnam War and free-speech movements, Henry Waxman and Howard Berman (who were both later elected to Congress) led a Young Democrats reform faction that wrested control of the organization, despite the wishes of the Democratic Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh. Now under progressive leadership, CYD supported the civil rights movements and took a strong, open stand against the Vietnam War. During the 1960s, CYD activists endured the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy – whom CYD had supported in his bid for the presidency – and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, then CYD President Berman attended the divisive, tear gas-filled Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a delegate for Senator Eugene McCarthy, champion of the anti-Vietnam War forces.
Typical of the young progressives was Waxman. In 1961, Waxman enrolled at UCLA with a strong interest in politics fueled by the civil rights movement. Waxman said his fondest memory of when he was a CYD occurred during the 1960s when President Kennedy was asked about a radical resolution that CYD had passed calling for a diplomatic recognition of Red China and ratification of the Test Ban Treaty. President Kennedy shrugged as if to say, “What can you do?” and then said, “Time is on our side.” Other notable CYD leaders in the 1960s included Phil Isenberg and Josiah Beeman.
The 1970s and 1980s
California Young Democrats persisted through the 1970s and 1980s, continuing to support Democratic candidates and promoting progressive causes. Leadership in the early 1970s included Terry Friedman, Rick Tuttle, and Harvey Alan Englander. The 1980s also saw the children of prominent Democrats emerging as CYD leaders including Linda Unruh (daughter of Speaker Jess Unruh) and Richard Overhouse (son of party officer Madge Overhouse).
In the 1990s, the California Young Democrats experienced exponential growth – by the end of the decade, CYD boasted a membership of more than 70 local chapters with nearly 3,000 members. With the onset of the information age, CYD made a transition into becoming an electronic organization, relying on Internet Web Pages and electronic mailing lists to communicate with members. Significant support from Art Torres, the Chair of the California Democratic Party, strengthened party relations and youth activity.
In 1995, the California College Democrats merged with the California Young Democrats under the leadership of Sarah Szalavitz, CCD president from 1994-95. CCD is now a permanent CYD caucus. The organizations now work together to host annual programs such as a biennial retreat at South Lake Tahoe (launched in 1993 and held in October during non-election years) and the annual “Spring Training” conference, instituted by Susan Blad in 1996.
In 2000, CYD President Ed Espinoza organized more than 300 Young Democrats for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. CYD also took a prominent role in delivering the youth campaign message, dispatching staff and volunteers in a successful statewide effort to elect five congressional Democrats in seats held by Republicans. Espinoza and state Communications Director Courtney Chesla also became regular contributors to national television and radio broadcasts.
The California Young Democrats continued to work towards developing future leaders in both the Democratic Party and the community as a whole. In a new era that started with severe losses in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, the future seemed meek for the California Young Democrats until a new era began in 2006 with the help of the California Young Democrats, Democrats as a whole took back the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. In 2008, the California Young Democrats played a pivotal role in the election of President Barack Obama. Having helped elect the nations first black president, the California Young Democrats began to usher in a new era of change in California.
2010 – Current Day
The California Young Democrats are dedicated to building a bloc of young voters for Democrats. With young voters voting in record numbers since 2008, CYD is the only youth political organization organizing young people through Peer-to-Peer, the only mobilizing tactic proven to increase young voter turnout on Election Day. As of 2018, the California Young Democrats comprises of over 106 chartered chapters and 16 caucuses and is the largest state federation of Young Democrats in the country.