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.