Dems in California Have All the Power—and Much of the Turmoil

You might think a political party racked by scandal, facing three lawsuits and riven with infighting would be in a bad spot politically. But, according to plenty of close observers, the California Democratic Party is doing just fine.

Fresh off a historic electoral triumph in the 2018 midterms, the party now dominates both chambers of the state Legislature while maintaining a decade-long lock on every statewide elected office. At the end of this month, California Democrats will hold their annual convention in San Francisco, hosting at least 14 presidential contenders.

While in the national limelight, they also have to hold a special election for party chair—the very existence of which speaks to the party’s internal turmoil.

Earlier this year, the former chair, Eric Bauman, was forced to step down over accusations of sexual harassment and assault, which he denies. A number of former staffers and party activists have sued.

Accusations of a hostile work environment only compound what was already an acrimonious climate within the party. In the last few months, critics of the party’s interim leader have accused her of “retaliation” and of stacking the staff with her allies. One group of delegates have accused another of trading in “anti-Semitic tropes.”

In short, the party will arrive in San Francisco with a lot of baggage.

“I hope the party gets its act together. The convention will elect a new chair and I hope that they clean house,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant. “But in terms of this being any kind of a significant factor in statewide politics, or in the standing of the Democratic Party itself in California, it is, in a sense, less important than what I had for breakfast this morning.”

If true, that’s a remarkable contrast to the state’s Republican Party, which holds virtually no power in Sacramento and whose once mighty House delegation could now easily fit in a minivan. Shackled in the mind of many voters to President Donald Trump, whose approval rating in California sits at around 30 percent, the party has struggled to appeal to the state’s most rapidly growing demographic groups. That seems to have placed a cap on GOP electoral success in the state, no matter how well-functioning its party operation.

California Democrats rest on the flip side of that coin. Buoyed by demographic tailwinds and a deeply unpopular president, to many, the party can do no wrong—even when it seems to be doing nothing but wrong.

“California is a solid blue state,” said Drexel Heard, a Democratic delegate. “It will take a little more than internal party politics to shake that.”

The Democrats’ Tale of Two Parties came into focus last November. In the same month, the party rode to a commanding victory at the polls and Bauman was forced to resign. As first reported by San Jose Inside and then the Los Angeles Times, the former labor leader from Los Angeles was accused of making “crude sexual comments” and engaging in intimidation and “unwanted touching.”

Since then, three lawsuits have been filed against Bauman and the party. The allegations include sexual harassment, verbal abuse, wrongful termination and sexual assault.

The divergence between the party’s electoral success and its interior strife is so stark, a relatively simple question—”what is the state of the California Democratic Party?”—tends to elicit an awkward silence or a strained chuckle.

“There’s much to celebrate and to be excited about,” said Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and one of seven people bidding to replace Bauman at this month’s convention. “At the same time, I think there’s some very serious issues that we should address.”

But, he added: “If not addressed, and Democrats don’t feel safe in engaging with their party, then it could absolutely impact both the energy, the activism and the ability to have real capacity throughout the state.”

The claims made in the lawsuits indicate that those issues go beyond Bauman. They depict a boozy workplace environment that allowed harassment, disparagement and assault of its own employees to go on unchecked or unnoticed. Amid all of this, questions have arisen about whether the party that claims to represent inclusion, tolerance and the spirit of the #MeToo movement lacks credibility with voters and donors.

“Of course it wasn’t just Eric,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, the party’s current vice chair who is also running for the top seat. “The dysfunction is that someone was able to behave that way and get away with it for far too long,”

It isn’t as though the party was trouble-free before the allegations against Bauman rose to the surface. Following a presidential primary that cleft Hillary Clinton supporters from backers of Bernie Sanders, the state party’s 2017 leadership race went narrowly and contentiously to Bauman. The candidate who came in second, Bay Area progressive activist Kimberly Ellis, cried foul, questioning the legitimacy of the outcome. Many delegates left the convention harboring resentments. Now Ellis is running for chair again.

There are more recent dust ups. Orange County delegates called for Iyad Afalqa, the chair of the party’s Arab-American caucus, to be disciplined for a Facebook post they claimed was appealing to anti-Semitic tropes.

Then last month, Alex Gallardo-Rooker, the acting chair of the state party, kicked a few critics off of a key committee, including Larimore-Hall. Those demoted called it “retaliation;” a party spokesman called that characterization “silly.”

The backbiting was bad before the fractious 2017 convention, but “it feels worse than the last time,” said Heard, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley on the party’s executive board. “It just feels more vicious.”

Still it’s not clear that any of this will imperil the party’s electoral prospects.

“I don’t mean to sound disrespectful,” said South, the consultant. “But if point-two percent of the California population is even aware of who Eric Bauman was or what happened to him, I would be shocked.”

Jackie Moreau agrees. Until recently, she was among that 99.8 percent. Just elected to the party’s executive board, she says the party needs to improve coordination with local activists. But did she worry that the party strife would turn off voters?

“You mean, like regular voters? Regular people with everyday lives that don’t think about party things?” she said. “No.”

But the party’s reputation may matter more with contributors, said RL Miller, chair of the party’s environmental caucus.

“Electorally, we’re in very good shape,” she said. “We simply need to convince donors that the party is healthy despite the dysfunction.”

Thus far, it doesn’t look like the party’s donor base needs much reassuring.

Though the new round of lawsuits are still fresh, the party has received nearly $8 million in contributions since the beginning of the year. That’s slightly less than the party’s haul during the same period in 2017—the last non-election year—but that was a historic high after Trump’s stunning win.

The financial importance of the party is somewhat limited anyway, said Don Perata, former top Democrat in the state Senate. Under California campaign finance law, the party channels much of the campaign cash spent in the state, but elected politicians direct a lot of the raising and spending, he said. And with the rise of well-financed progressive political groups such as Indivisible and NextGen outside the party, the organization’s political clout may no longer carry so much weight.

“The persuasiveness of the California Democratic endorsement has lost a lot of its luster over the last decade or two,” said Perata.

But as presidential candidates and the national media descend on San Francisco, the party will have things to consider beyond self-analysis.

On Saturday June 1, 14 presidential candidates are slated to speak before the delegates: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Texas Rep. Julián Castro, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to overshadow what: presidential candidates speaking or the chair’s race,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic consultant. “The delegates might get more excited about all the other stuff going on than this race for the party chair.”

For average voters at home, the latest soundbite from Sen. Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg might be all they hear—if they hear anything at all.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

32 Comments

  1. Politics within politics? Not surprising. As a registered Democrat, I’m disappointed in the party leadership in California for allowing such infighting to happen. I would hope that leadership with integrity would be on full display.

    Regardless, thank you Ben Christopher and CALmatters for reporting on this.

  2. MOST of the people we see running for position are power seeker individuals. Now that the party has all the power few have concentrating on holding all the power. For this, on the future election I am only going to vote for KAMALA Harris. The other options I will leave them blank or vote for any other but a democrat.

  3. Power, Power, Power. Money, Money, Money = Corruption, Debauchery, Incest, Skullduggery. Treason, Infanticide, Sedition, Unabashed Lying, Mass-Hysteria, Mass-Stupidity, Back Stabbing. This is todays Democratic Party.
    I’m really impressed by all that. NOT!
    What are these turd-balls going to do that will make the country a better place to live?

    All in the face on the most successful president, and the best economy in my life time.

    Every one in the DNC should be given a sharp knife and put in a locked room for a day.
    We could sell tickets!

    • M.T.Gunn, applying honesty here: Trump is a sexual pig and Bill Clinton was a sexual pig too. Clinton’s was the best economy. Trump has been too little in power to claim it is all his success. He has spent more time in stormy sexual controversies and separating families than anything else. That will be his legacy the same way Monica is for Clinton. Clinton’s most famous phrase: I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Trump’s most famous phrase: you can grab women by their pussies if you are famous…

      • Clintoon had Republican’s to fix the economy for him, and Hillary to burry the girls. Employment is now at an all time record for everyone. Stock market as well, we have the worlds richest liberals. We new Trump was a playboy. We voted for him to drain the swamp unfortunately it’s only one snake at a time, but the snakes are terrified of him, and we love that!
        TRUMP 2020-2024

        • Excuse me for God or Christianity Reps brag so much being part of, the playboy card is not an excuse. For God he is a sexual pig and an adulterous that will go straight to hell!

          • Calm down now Felix.
            Democrats don’t believe in God, Christianity, and have lost any sense of morality. They will kill their own children and let murders go free and that’s about as close to cannibalism as it gets. Trump plays with big girls that like the power, and money, and are will to trade sex to get a piece of it. Trump is quite an exception to traditional Republicans. As adultery is traditionally the MO of Democrats like the Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, Clinton’s, Roosevelt’s, I guess old Jimmy Carter might be the exception, but he clamed to be a born again Christian, and the worst president up till Obama.

            If it will clean up the swamp I’ll ride in the devil wagon for a while longer.

        • YOU are not only an empty gun but also an empty brain! So only Republicants are Christians and they support the pussies’ grabber better known as Trump? Dear lord Jesus give a bit of neuronal potential to this empty brain. He was late when you were giving away the brain talent or he never used it! You take away the talents from those that never use them…This gun is empty!

          • If you can’t refute the argument, and can’t agree with what they are saying, just attack them personally.
            It’s what Democrats do.

          • That’s it Felix! Democrat politicians are all Godless commi’s worshipping tyrannical government and them selves.
            I’m glad you finally figured that out.

            Click, click, click, click, click, click, Snap, wizzzzzz, thump.

            Sound of my brain reloading.

  4. > The divergence between the party’s electoral success and its interior strife is so stark, a relatively simple question—”what is the state of the California Democratic Party?”—tends to elicit an awkward silence or a strained chuckle.

    “It’s the best damn corrupt party to ever run a state! You got a problem with that?”

  5. The Democrats are solely responsible for treating criminals with kids gloves and causing crime to skyrocket.

    • They also solely own the housing crisis, disease/drug infested homeless camps, high taxes and every lost job anytime a business moves out of CA.

      • At least the Democrats are not owned by a foreign adversary, Putin’s Russian State. As long as California remains a Blue State there is hope. The Mueller Report brings a whole new meaning to Red State. Time for you guys to jump ship because red no longer looks good on you.

  6. The Democratic Party dominates in California politics due to its nature. Californians by nature are progressive leaders. We do not or will not bow to the conservatives which would like to plunge our state into the darkness of back alley abortions, women in the kitchen instead of competing in the workplace toe to toe with men. Women’s rights (ERA) need to be recognized before any other groups rights or assertions. For a man to reference a woman’s genitalia to be grabbed by a man demeans half of our population and reduces women to what pleasures that they can offer men vs what contributions that women have made in our society for all of us, men and women. We all had mothers. Would any man disrespect the person who has given him life and nurtured him from day one with unconditional love? It is beyond my comprehension that anyone would do that, but then again, I am not Donald Trump. There is a way forward for a transparent and cohesive government. We need to work very hard in that direction, because this administration and Republican Party no longer works for 99 percent of us, and especially the people who don’t resemble the top leader of our country. It is time for us to lead instead of being led. California is and always will be the guiding light that this country looks to in ending the darkness. Keep on Keeping on.

      • to·tal·i·tar·i·an·ism
        /tōˌtaləˈterēəˌnizəm/
        noun
        noun: totalitarianism
        a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.
        “democratic countries were fighting against totalitarianism”

        If you choose to be a Russian Bot then at least get your version of facts on par with a historical perspective of the world as it actually exists.

          • El buble,
            By virtue of the fact that we are writing comments ourselves, that is we do not hire much more gifted in the written prose, deems us as among those that make less than too much money. So why do you care if there is a sliding scale which favors the poor and not the rich? Yes, there is a tax of one percent upon those Californians which make more than one million dollars per year. However that tax goes to the building of housing for Californians which suffer from mental illness. Not a bad way to tax the rich and help those in need of mental health.

  7. The article discusses the harassment issues. This culture began with Kevin the Groper who had roommates that accosted female staffers, following them in restrooms. DeLeon has his own issues, over 20 women complained about him.

  8. seriously? I wasted my time reading this article, that pretty much says nothing, Based on the headline I was expecting to read something about different democratic positions or views on policy issues. Pure garbage.

  9. > However that tax goes to the building of housing for Californians which suffer from mental illness. Not a bad way to tax the rich and help those in need of mental health.

    So, if I have a good idea on how to spend your money, I can just take it.

    Great! I have LOTS of good ideas. And, If I let you keep your money, you would just piss it away on marijuana or sex.

    Better for society if I took your money and spent it on public art and healthcare and retirement pensions for bureaucrats and politicians.

  10. It is better for us as a society to tax the very rich, than to have the rich donate their money to whichever charity that they themselves choose. The money that is derived through taxation is spent by the society where the society as a whole deems most appropriate. This is done through democratic process so that we all get to vote for those things deemed as a priority for the money to be spent. When the rich donate to a charity of their own choosing, like the Trump Foundation or other tax dodges then the society as a whole suffers while the rich avoid taxation.

    The last episode of Game of Thrones seemed to bring out the folly of a few rich men deciding on the use of the Iron Throne Bank’s considerable reserves. I believe the Keeper of the Bank wanted Brothels rebuilt before ships or other societal needs. It was a bit tongue in cheek and humorous but also brought forth a point.

    • > This is done through democratic process so that we all get to vote for those things deemed as a priority for the money to be spent.

      The “democratic process” is government by the stupidest and most easily manipulated fifty-one percent. The other forty-nine percent have nothing to say about anything.

      “Democracy” is tyranny of the majority, which is why the founders created a constitutional republic and NOT a “democracy”.

        • Majority Rules, Yes and I’m certain if you lived in a real red state you’d be screaming about the tyranny of the majority
          forcing you to live in a place were people carry guns or are required to have a serious reason to kill a third or fourth trimester baby. You would be screaming about losing constitutional rights that aren’t in the constitution and wanting get rid of ones that are in it. California is the richest state in the union it thumbs it nose at the rule of law, yet demands more money from the Federal government that it hates to pay for millions of “Undocumented Democrats” flooding into the state right now at the expensed of the rest of the country.

          It’s only a matter of time before California progresses to the state of Venezuela and that two/thirds majority is eating out of a dumpster.

        • > However, most of these measures take a two thirds majority not just a simple majority.

          A “two thirds majority” rule would be a CONSTITUTIONAL provision. Just like the “electoral college” is a CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISION.

          It’s amazing how often Democrats find themselves liking “rule of law” rather than the rule of the mob majority.

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