Contentious battle for California Democratic State Chair foreshadows future for Democrats nationwide

At the 2017 California Democratic Convention, the caucuses and floor are abuzz with the adrenaline of young, progressive, engaged political activists, strategists, delegates and observers. Following last year’s general election, it is clear that the face of the state party is undergoing a change which reflects a push towards an increasingly progressive, intersectional and diversified agenda.

Nothing epitomizes this shift in ideals and practice more than the fierce fight for the control of the State Party Chairpersonship, as the current chair, John Burton ends his eight-year tenure.

Retiring California Democratic State Party Chair, John Burton encourages the crowd to give Donald Trump the finger during Saturday’s General Session. [Photo via The Detroit News]

Under Burton’s leadership, California has accomplished much: The state has reduced unemployment from a record high to 12.2% in 2009, to 4% in 2017 — bringing into the state over 42% of the new jobs created nationwide under the Obama Administration. Additionally, the state has committed to raising the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2020, with many municipalities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco already having done so. The California Democratic Party has also lowered its uninsured population from 17% to 9% and closed a $27 billion state budget deficit. Much of this change has come into existence because Democrats currently control both the Governorship and State Senate, though it is easy to see where Burton has played a critical role as the architect of the platform which has pushed the party to the far-left. Whoever fills his shoes has a huge legacy to continue and build upon.

Locked into a cage match for this position are the former (and, first African-American) Executive Director of Emerge California, Kimberly Ellis and the current Vice Chair of the Democratic Party, Eric Bauman.

[Photo via The San Francisco Chronicle]

Ellis, an attorney with a civil rights background and mother from Richmond, brings to her battle a decade of experience organizing women, specifically women of color, across California. Her campaign motto, “Unbought, Unbossed,” is emblazoned on pink tee-shirts which flood the convention floor and delegate voting lines. The very ethos of this motto reflects the deep desire of many California Progressive Democrats, in a post Bernie Sanders world, to have an outsider -a fresh face- assume the helm and lead the party into a new era.

“The Democratic Party is tired, it’s old, it’s staunchly white, and in California we have taken people of color’s votes for granted for so long,” said Lateefa Simon from the District 7 BART Board of Directors. “We know that the Latinos and African-Americans, 90% vote Democratic — and in our state the Democratic Party spends less than 5% in outreach to these communities. We know that the [party] is failing if less than 15% of the electorate in LA County came out to vote in the last two elections, post-Trump. [We know] the leadership we have is not encouraging new people to join the party or inspiring people to actually come out and vote. Obviously, we are in a state of emergency.”

“[I think] the Democratic Party is going to have to be dragged back kicking and screaming to the values which make it great,” says Ray — a British man, turned U.S.citizen, turned delegate and activist, “It seems we’re going to have to go quite Bolshevik to get what needs to be done for the people of our country done.”

Bauman, the acknowledged front runner, is seen by many as part of the old guard and less orientated towards change than what the most assertively left-leaning members of the state delegation want for the future of the party. He is known as the “kingmaker” of LA County and is seen as a player of political hardball, who is not known for being a “very nice guy.” There is also criticism of his connections to the pharmaceutical lobby, in particular his effort to lobby against Proposition 61 in 2016, a ballot measure which would have prevented the state from buying medications at a more expensive price than they are currently sold to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

This is hard to wrap one’s head around: With credentials as a nurse, a labor organizer, grassroots activist and a member of the LGBTQ community, Bauman has set forth a vision and agenda for the CDP that mirrors and builds on that of retiring Chairperson, John Burton, who he has worked alongside since 2009.

“It’s an interesting problem,” said a staffer for Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. “In the rest of the country someone like [Eric Bauman] would be considered a progressive on the level of Bernie Sanders. In California? He’s considered practically a Republican.”

Despite Bauman’s edge for expected victory, the energy Ellis has infused into the delegate electorate seems to illuminate where the the party ethos is headed in coming years. She is the outside-the- party, aggressively progressive, grassroots candidate which those who are pushing the party to the left edge are seeking to continue the uber-progressive agenda. Ellis enjoys massive support from the Women’s Caucus, the African-American Caucus, the LGBTQ Caucus and the California Young Democrats and has been endorsed by both Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom and by former presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders.

The endorsement from Sanders has lit a fire under those Progressive Democrats in California who looked to him for the outside the system change they desired to see in the last national cycle.

Many of the top California Democrats (such as Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Diane Feinstein) skipped the convention and refrained from endorsements altogether. To many this signifies a desire to pass the torch to new leadership, in whatever person and movement that takes shape.

There is a counter-argument to Ellis as chair and ersatz leader of the the most progressive state party in the country. It is whispered in bars and social events under the cacophony of those cheering for her: This is a carry over of the Berners vs. the Stronger Together crowd that further promotes the divisive narrative which has collaterally damaged the Democratic Party at the national level. Many believe that this is a “purity politics ” argument, which has no place in California, where the belief is that the eyes should be on the prize of uniting Democrats, nationwide, in preparation for the upcoming midterm elections in 2018.

“Infighting is the luxury of those in power,” says one delegate, “I don’t want to have to fight with people who are on the same side as I am.”

Around 8pm on the Saturday night of the convention, a buzz roils through the audience of The African-American Caucus meeting. Smartphones begin going off across the room. Several people clump together whispering “She won! She won!”

A leaker from inside the ballot count has prematurely notified their contacts (and, their contacts notified their contacts, and so on) that Kimberly Ellis has upset Eric Bauman and won the Chair spot. This single leak sets the stage for what will be a contentious showdown over the next 24 hours.

At 10pm on Saturday night, the CDP announces that it is actually Eric Bauman who has taken the Chair, with 51% of the vote. Ellis takes only 39% of the delegate count (with 10% abstaining) yet refuses to concede, stating that there are “very serious concerns” about the tallies.

Ellis announces that she is in touch with lawyers and wants her supporters to know that “This race is not over.”

[Via Twitter]

For the moment, Bauman’s is a very narrow victory with a margin of only 62 votes propelling him into the Chair’s seat. At 10:30pm, Sacramento Bee political reporter, Christopher Cadelago reports via Twitter that of 3,300 eligible delegates, 2,953 delegates have voted, making the turnout 89%.

But the numbers don’t add up: By Sunday morning at 10am, there is news of first a recount, then an audit of the vote. Ellis and her supporters contend that there were over 2,900 votes counted, yet allegedly only 2,200 registered delegates who attended the convention. An impromptu rally in support of Kimberly Ellis forms at Cesar Chavez park at 1:45pm.

[Photo via The LA Times]

“I will not concede this race until we have validated the results,” Ellis tells the crowd.

“One of the things that this party cannot be is a party that’s just like Trump and the Republicans,” Ellis says. “A party that operates in closed rooms, smoked-filled rooms, behind curtains, in secrecy and shadow. It is time for this party to be a transparent party.”

From the stage of the General Session, the tone focuses on uniting the party under new leadership.

“New activists want to lead,” says Christine Pelosi. “We must work together in harmony.”

Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, is a longtime party official who has seen the slow progressive change which has been brought to the party over the last decade.

It is undeniable that this race strongly echoes the acrimonious 2016 primary race between Bernie Sanders and HIllary Clinton. The question now becomes, once the election results are certified and show Bauman the victor, will Ellis take an active role in ensuring her supporters get behind the leadership to present a united front to the state and country?

If the thought “as California goes, so goes the Democratic Party” is true, what does that tell us about what will begin to happen with Democrats nationwide in the lead up to the 2018 midterms?

As of the time of this report, the audit of the vote for California Democratic Party Chair has not been resolved, though Eric Bauman has been officially named Chairperson of the party.

UPDATE: Tuesday, May 23rd — Ellis and supporters are claiming voter fraud and calling on Eric Bauman to recuse himself and his campaign from any participation in a ballot audit. An official audit of the ballots for the California State Party Chair race has begun in Sacramento and is ongoing. (Via LA Times)

Kate Rice | @adorkablegrrl — Cross posted from The AdorkableGrrl