Santa Clara County Democrats elected a new chair last week, ending a 26-year run for Steve Preminger and launching a two-year term for his successor, Bill James.
At a packed Democratic Central Committee meeting Thursday night in the Sheriff’s Office auditorium, the party also elected John Comiskey as vice chair, Helen Chapman as secretary and Angelica Ramos as treasurer.
“A lot of people here, party activists and elected officials, have seen their whole political career develop during a time when Steve Preminger was chair of the local party,” James, a 16-year member and vice chair since 2013, told San Jose Inside. “As you can imagine, it is very daunting for us as the new leadership team to balance the continuity with the change that’s needed. With every leadership change, you risk losing something of your culture and your core, but it’s also a chance to revitalize the party.”
Preminger announced he would retire last year. The internal party pick was followed this past weekend by the election of party delegates to help shape the Democratic platform. These low-profile elections typically don’t garner much interest, but this year was a game-changer. The turnout in local state Assembly districts, where Democrats elected seven men and seven women to represent each one, was unprecedented.
“I know in my district we saw twice as many people as last year,” James said. “That’s a lot of new energy expressing itself.”
The local changing of the guard comes as Democrats throughout the nation grapple with how to move on from an election in which they lost the White House and failed to win back Congress. Aimée Escobar, a lifelong Democrat, said the election inspired her to campaign against James for the chairmanship in hopes of evolving the party from reactive machine to political movement.
“The world has changed,” said Escobar, an elected member of the county’s Democratic Central Committee. “We blinked and entered this new reality. We have to decide: do we evolve with it or not?”
Nationally, the race for DNC chair between Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Detroit) has become more than a matter of who will lead the opposition to President-elect Donald Trump. Whether or not any significant ideological differences distinguish the two, they have come to represent dueling factions within the party.
“We definitely see that split between the younger, newer members versus the establishment,” James said. “Locally, we have more unity, but there’s still that tension between Democrats who consider themselves more progressive and those who are more centrist, incrementalist.”
The questions go beyond the choice between Perez and Ellison. Or, in California, between Kimberly Ellis, a progressive black woman, and Eric Bauman, vice chair of the state party. In electing their new leaders, state Democrats will, to a certain extent, decide whether to adhere to the centrist neoliberalism of the establishment or return to the party’s social democratic roots.
To several young, diverse members of the DCC, the election of James was seen as a vote against that kind of transformation.
“People like the status quo,” Escobar told San Jose Inside after the meeting. “They know what to expect. If it’s not me, that’s OK. I understand the dynamics and change is hard.”
Escobar said that she has faith that James will listen to progressive voices within the party, but something is amiss considering that more than one of the county party’s endorsed candidates lost local elections this year.
“We need to do more calls to action,” she said. “We need to be more proactive instead of reactive, we need to fundraise to support our endorsed candidates. We really need to step up our game.”
James said he plans to draw lessons from the Bernie Sanders campaign by tapping into the progressive groundswell inspired by the Vermont senator. As a member-led organization, James said, the Democratic Party should heed those voices.
“I think you will start to see a more progressive democratic party,” he said.