The Surprising Race for California Democratic Party Chair Will Be a Test for Effective Democratic Socialism

There is a remarkable and underreported story in the California Democratic Party that is still waiting to be told. The story is not yet finished, and the outcome could have profound consequences for the future of the Democratic Party and of the attempt to inject democratic socialism into the Party’s establishment.

The California Democratic Party is holding its convention between May 19th and May 21st. Among the many issues to be decided there is the party’s leadership, including and especially its next Chair. Chairman John Burton is retiring after eight years, leaving an open seat. The two main candidates vying to replace him are Eric Bauman, a Jewish and openly gay male nurse, Male Vice Chair of the state party, Chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and long-time progressive activist for marriage equality, single payer healthcare and similar causes; and Kimberly Ellis, an African-American and former Executive Director of Emerge California, an organization dedicated to recruiting female candidates for public office. Both Bauman and Ellis backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary, and Keith Ellison for DNC Chair.

Here’s where things get interesting. Despite the hard-pushed national narrative in some center-left quarters that Bernie Sanders supporters are just a bunch of racist and sexist young “brocialists,” the California Democratic Party is proving otherwise. Sanders Democrats got elected in a massive wave to the California Democratic Party via the January 2017 Assembly Delegate Caucuses held throughout the state, most of them young women and people of color.

Most of those Sanders delegates (and Our Revolution itself) have thrown their weight behind Kimberly Ellis. Although she was a Clinton supporter in the Democratic primary, she is seen as an outsider against Eric Bauman’s insider. (The third candidate for Chair, an attorney named Lenore Albert, is running a dark horse campaign as the authentic Berniecrat in the race since both of the principal candidates backed Clinton.) Ellis is also running on a platform of changes to the Party to ostensibly provide greater transparency. It’s worth noting that CDP Secretary Daraka Larimore-Hall, an African-American man and Sanders supporter, is the frontrunner for Bauman’s current Male Vice Chair seat. So in terms of national interest, it might come as a surprise to national media types to see a cadre of Sanders supporters of all kinds flock to an African-American woman who spent most of her career on identity politics. “Berniebros” indeed.

For his part, Bauman has the vast majority of endorsements from organized labor and elected officials, as well as most longtime party activists. Among new activists and Democratic Socialists, that would seem to make him the heavy. But that would be a mistake.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting.

The Chair’s race is a perfect example of the conflict between what seems like the best approach for radical reformers, versus what actually is. It is tempting for activists frustrated with the status quo to want to throw out everyone in the old guard and replace them with someone new and inexperienced. But that instinct often throws out good babies with bad bathwater, and the replacement isn’t always better than what went before. Moreover, there is a constant conflict between those who advocate making change by pushing aggressively from the outside, versus those who advocate pushing hard more quietly from the inside. The latter is usually more effective, although it’s far less sexy. There’s a reason that those who know Bauman well and have worked to reform Party rules, including hardcore progressive activists many of whom backed Sanders, are lining up behind Bauman.

Consider a few examples. When party rules allowed state and federal legislators to appoint delegates anywhere in the state rather than in their local districts, there arose a sort of protection racket in which bad incumbents were protected from grassroots challenges by legislators simply appointing most of their delegates in the contested district on behalf of the incumbent. Legislators predictably resisted grassroots demands for change. It was only Eric Bauman’s leadership and negotiations, due to his longstanding connections with the legislators in question, that resulted in a far more progressive compromise several years back. That compromise, only made possible by Eric Bauman, helped enable progressive Nanette Barragan to unseat the more conservative Isadore Hall in California’s 44th district.

When a large number of oil-friendly legislators were strongly resisting a push by grassroots California Democrats to enshrine a fracking moratorium in the Party’s platform championed by Environmental Caucus Chair RL Miller and were organizing to kill it in committee, it was Eric Bauman who used his influence to ensure it survived.

This is Bauman’s modus operandi. He does the hard work quietly and without fanfare that almost no one else without his connections could do, work that would be impossible for an outsider whom legislators could more easily bypass and ignore. He also knows how to build and manage a behemoth organization like the California Democratic Party, having turned the Los Angeles County Democratic Party from a five-figure organization to a dominant seven-figure one.

And Bauman has been very helpful to young reform activists all throughout the state. When I was a young Deaniac making waves in the Ventura County Democratic Party, the establishment at the time tried desperately to crush me and my allies underfoot. Despite his longstanding relationships with those establishment figures, Bauman helped and mentored me in surviving and thriving, eventually enabling me to become Chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party in my early 30s and, with the help my progressive allies, make it a progressive, effective organization that helped flip nearly the entire county from red to blue at the state and federal level while sponsoring some of the state’s most leading edge progressive resolutions. I know at least a dozen other activists for whom Bauman has served in a similar mentoring role.

So what about Ellis, then? Well, Ellis’ campaign faces the problem of many reform activists without significant experience: many of her proposals sound good at first, but would be problematic or disastrous if implemented.

Ellis’ principal campaign plank is direct elections of many standing committee members. This seems like deep inside baseball, but it’s crucially important. The party’s standing committees, especially the rules and platform committees, have outsized influence on party policy. Currently, the party chair has enormous say in who gets appointed to those committees. Ellis’ plan to directly elect those positions at convention sounds good and democratic, but would in practice be a chaotic disaster. In a convention with over 3,000 delegates, there would ensue a public ballot in which over 200 candidates would vie for several dozen standing committee positions. The result would be ugly and massive slate wars in which special interests would dominate, and in which there would likely be major ideological and identity imbalance.

Another of Ellis’ planks is ending “automatic endorsement of incumbents.” First, incumbents are not automatically endorsed. Incumbents are automatically placed on the consent calendar for endorsement, but can be pulled by signatures of only 10% of the district’s delegates. The reason for this is to avoid the enormous hassle, volunteer time and paperwork involved in managing pre-endorsement processes for incumbents, the vast majority of whom win with only a few objections. But Ellis’ plank sounds good to establishment-phobic new activists, most of whom have never attended or volunteered at a pre-endorsement conference.

Ellis also promises large changes to the way the Party’s money is spent, without a full understanding that altering the spending priorities of the party to be out of sync with the desires of the very legislators the Party works to re-elect, will result in the defunding of the Party in favor of unaccountable outside expenditures by legislators.

Ellis has also stated that she wants any endorsed candidate pledge to read and agree with the party’s platform — apparently failing to realize that that will either hamper Democrats running in red areas where some parts of the party’s platform may be a death sentence for candidates, or that the party will be forced to water down its progressive platform in order to accommodate Democrats in red districts.

In all these cases, progressive reformers run up against the law of unintended consequences. What sounds good isn’t always what is good, and what sounds progressive and democratic can often lead to outcomes that are less progressive than the status quo. It also often helps to have a committed progressive advocate on the inside able to twist arms, more than someone beating down blows on legislators from the outside.

In any case, it’s heartening to see Berniecrat delegates upend the conventional wisdom about Sanders supporters by backing a woman of color who has spent her professional life advocating for women candidates of all ideologies from centrist to progressive. It would be a great thing to have national media present at the convention to tell their stories.

But I hope that enough Sanders supporters like myself will be able to separate what sounds like progressive reform, from what really is progressive reform. If Sanders supporters want to cast a protest vote against the establishment, a true Berniecrat option for Chair exists. Other Sanders Democrats are running up and down the leadership ticket.

Between the two Clinton supporters running for Chair, Bauman is the only one with a real, achievable agenda for single payer healthcare, an end to the death penalty, prison reform, economic and social equality, and the rest of the Democratic Socialist agenda many of us so eagerly wish to see in California.

David Atkins is South Vice Chair of the Santa Barbara Democratic Party, former Chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party, President of the Democratic Club of Santa Barbara, and running to be Region 10 Director. He was inspired to get involved by Howard Dean. He has endorsed Eric Bauman for Chair, and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary election. His writing can be found at Washington Monthly, American Prospect, Alternet, Salon, Digby’s Hullabaloo and DailyKos. He is on twitter (too much!) at @DavidOAtkins