The South Bay’s largest, most influential Democratic Party faction went through a dramatic shakeup Monday night. In a packed room at Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose, the Santa Clara County Democratic Club voted overwhelmingly to replace an entrenched executive board led by Herb Engstrom and Rob Means with an entirely new slate of progressive, considerably more diverse activists.
It also rechristened itself the Silicon Valley Democratic Club, partly because the name carries more cultural cachet. Another reason? To avoid getting confused for the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee (DCC), which, by several accounts, was so sick of hearing complaints about the group’s leaders being unwelcoming, obliviously misogynistic and otherwise out of touch that it considered revoking the club’s charter.
News of the results prompted incredulous gasps, which gave way to ecstatic cheers, high-fives and hearty embraces by Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, of Recall Persky fame, and some of the other newly elected cohorts, including Art Cohen, who sued Donald Trump over his fraudulent “university,” and Bay Area Women’s March impresario Jennie Richardson.
After posing with the group for a few snapshots to memorialize the occasion, Richardson reflected on the parallels between their victory and the leftward pull on the Democratic Party nationwide as more women, people of color and LGBTQ folks join the ranks.
Dauber—clad in a white-and-black Beto O’Rourke-for Senate tee—echoed her colleague’s observation, saying the club’s transformation stems from a new generation of Democrats who want the party to address issues like climate change, economic inequities and sexual violence with more urgency than ever before.
“But you can see what they’re up against,” she added in a phone call the next day.
Monday night’s showdown capped months of turmoil that Means characterized as a “battle for the culture of the club” and Engstrom cast in more sensational terms, inflaming simmering tensions between the old guard and the new.
In emails with members obtained by Fly, Engstrom called the largely female groundswell a “takeover” by Dauber “to promote her own agenda of women’s issues.” When a fellow Dem tried to assuage his fears by crediting Dauber with “some good ideas,” Engstrom replied that people “with nefarious motives can also have good ideas” and cited Adolf Hitler as an example because he invested in the Autobahn.
That didn’t sit well with other members, let alone Dauber. After debunking the Hitler-Autobahn claim, she highlighted the underlying sexism of Engstrom’s statement.
“One point that has been lost in your terrible behavior is the fact that promoting an ‘agenda of women’s issues’ is not a nefarious motive,” she wrote. “In fact, promoting women's issues is a Democratic Party objective.”
The email chain got pretty intense leading up to Monday’s election. Several people demanded an apology from Engstrom, including DCC Chair Bill James. Cohen, among others, called the tone-deafness another reason to support the ultimately victorious 18-member slate endorsed by Congressman Ro Khanna, Councilman Don Rocha, county Supervisor Cindy Chavez and former Santa Clara Councilman John McLeMore.
But Engstrom doubled down.
“The mention of Hitler’s name evidently causes some people anguish,” he mused in an email before concluding that people’s emotional reaction must’ve caused them to miss the point. Lost on Engstrom, it seems, was that many members took offense precisely because of his point.
And as a resounding rebuttal, they voted him out.