The Real Story of the Battle for California Democratic Party Chair

Last night Eric Bauman won the race for Chair of the California Democratic Party by a slim margin at the state’s party convention in Sacramento. His opponent Kimberly Ellis refuses to concede, but she has few legal grounds to overturn the result. The narrative being played throughout much of the media is that it was a battle between establishment forces and progressive Berniecrats. But while slightly accurate, that narrative far overstates the case and ignores the other much larger dynamics that really drove the race.

Full disclosure: I am a party delegate and Sanders supporter who voted for Eric Bauman and endorsed him long ago, for reasons I explained at length in an earlier piece. I’m South Vice Chair of the Santa Barbara Democratic Central Committee, and this morning I’ll be ratified as the new Regional Director for the area encompassing four assembly districts on the central coast and parts inland.

To understand what actually happened in the battle between Bauman and Ellis, it’s important to know a bit about the party’s structure and its history. To make a long story short, the state party’s membership stands on three basic legs: 1) elected officials and their appointees; 2) county central committee members; and 3) members elected in caucuses held in each assembly district in January of odd-numbered years. As with most caucuses, these assembly district caucuses (known as ADEMs) give the greatest advantage to grassroots organizers. A huge wave of Berniecrats swept these caucuses across the state with the help of Our Revolution in January.

The other important piece of information is that California’s population and sphere of influence has gradually been moving southward from Northern California to Southern California. But party leadership, including under recent chair John Burton, has been held primarily in the north, much to the frustration of the party’s growing base in the south. Many party elections are contested on an ideological or identity basis, but regionalism tends to play a far greater role. The party chair has outsize influence, holding control of much of the party apparatus and standing committee appointments.

Which brings us to 2017. After eight years of effective leadership under Northern California resident John Burton, Male Vice Chair and Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman was primed to take over the position. This greatly discomfited many in the north, but no one from the establishment side was going to challenge Bauman, whose leadership in Southern California and across the state has been unquestionably effective.

In comes Kimberly Ellis, a Northern Californian and Executive Director of Emerge CA, an organization dedicated to recruiting Democratic women to run for office. Ellis was essentially recruited to run by a few influential women in the party from the northern part of the state.

It’s very important to note here that both Bauman and Ellis were Clinton supporters. From an identity angle, Bauman is a gay Jewish man, and Ellis is an African-American woman. Some in the party were hoping for female leadership in place of Bauman. The brewing divide between Ellis and Bauman was based on gender and region more than anything else.

Into this complicated stew came the Berniecrat delegates from the ADEM caucuses in January. Many Sanders supporters were upset over work taken by Bauman’s consulting partners against Proposition 61, a prescription drug initiative that had been endorsed by Sanders. Ellis, meanwhile, although a Clinton supporter, was essentially a blank slate: having run Emerge CA for seven years and not held much of a significant role in the Democratic Party at a state or local level, she had no track record to be sullied by.

Sensing an opportunity to win over new Sanders-aligned delegates, Ellis ran a campaign ostensibly to Bauman’s left on issues from fracking to single-payer healthcare — despite the fact that Bauman has been very active and vocal on those issues, and Ellis herself had no track record on them prior to running for chair of the party. She also ran on various reforms to the party’s structure that sounded good to many, but would be counterproductive to progressive outcomes.

Using this strategy, she did attract much support from the new ADEM delegates. This is very important to note, since Berniecrats are often accused of racism and sexism — but admirably had no qualms at all about supporting a woman of color for the top spot in the party. That’s a good thing, and crushes many national narratives about the motives of Sanders voters.

That said, a large number of Southern California Sanders supporters were behind Bauman — especially those Sanders backers who had a history of party activism and were aware of Bauman’s many accomplishments, some more open and some less so, on behalf of progressive priorities.

In the end, the race fell mostly along regional lines: NorCal delegates generally voted for Ellis, and SoCal delegates generally voted for Bauman. Many establishment types from the north went with Ellis, and many hardcore progressive Berniecrats from the south went for Bauman. Since the convention was held in Sacramento this year (it alternates regions every year), the advantage in turnout went to the north.

The other downballot races also tell against the Bernie-versus-establishment line. Party Secretary Daraka Larimore-Hall, a strong Sanders supporter and an African-American man, was the overwhelming winner for the Male Vice Chair position to replace Bauman (like most, I voted for Daraka.) The Female Vice Chair and Controller races were not close and favored the establishment — even though both races featured an outsider or progressive insurgent against an establishment player. The only other close race — which is actually heading to a runoff this morning — was for the Secretary, and was also contested along largely regional as well as generational lines.

Ultimately, this was not a victory of the establishment over Berniecrats.

There were two regional establishments in conflict, with some identity issues in play as well. The Sanders-versus-establishment narrative came in late and was overlaid on top of that. But the other downballot races show that the ideological divide was secondary to the other considerations that drove most of the votes.

In any case, two things are clear: 1) the party is badly in need of unity and healing from all of its leaders, 2) and the influence of Sanders supporters is positive, widespread and a force for change to be reckoned with both now and in the years to come.