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Election of California Democrats' Leader Exposes Party's Divide

The ongoing family feud among California Democrats just got worse.

By Joe Garofoli

The ongoing family feud among California Democrats just got worse.

The election of longtime party insider Eric Bauman as the new chair of the California Democratic Party has inflamed painful feelings among progressives that the party isn't listening to its grassroots members.

Supporters of the runner-up, Richmond resident Kimberly Ellis, wanted a recount Sunday, but party rules don't provide for a recount. Bauman won by a mere 62 votes -- 1,493 to 1,431.

"And he's got a problem on his hands: This party is divided," said Carlos Marroquin, a Los Angeles resident who organized young voters in several states as part of the Bernie Sanders Brigade. "And if they're thinking about (midterm elections in) 2018, forget it. Because they're not going to win if they're divided."

While such internal disputes may seem arcane to everyday voters, splits like this could have repercussions because even though Democrats dominate California politics, holding every statewide office and a supermajority in the Legislature, there is concern the party could lose the younger voters who supported Sanders' presidential candidacy last year.

Those feelings erupted Sunday in a chaotic scene on the floor at the Sacramento Convention Center, the final day of the three-day party convention, as Bauman was introduced as the new chairman. Ellis' supporters, waving signs that read "Validate the votes!" and "Resist corporate Democrats," demanded a recount.

But outgoing party chairman and longtime San Francisco politician John Burton told the delegates the party's bylaws don't provide for a recount. He explained that the rival camps agreed the ballots, which are signed by each voter, would be counted and inspected soon and that Ellis had not asked for a recount or to "delay the proceedings."

As Ellis supporters continued to press him by citing parliamentary procedures, the famously profane Burton grew frustrated, extending a middle finger to the audience.

The results stood, but if the ballot examination doesn't soothe the simmering mistrust, it may be harder for Democrats to woo back voters who have "Demexited" the party -- even though they may agree with most of its positions, they feel it's not paying sufficient attention to working and middle-class Americans.

Sitting on the floor of a hallway outside the convention floor Sunday morning, Tania Singh feverishly wrote signs that said, "Strike 3: Hillary. Perez. Bauman." Just like the election of Hillary Clinton over Sanders in last year's Democratic presidential primary and the narrow victory of Tom Perez as Democratic National Committee chair over progressive favorite Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., earlier this year, each race was "against the grassroots," said Singh, a 28-year-old administrative assistant and party delegate who lives in Riverside.

"A lot of older folks talk about how proud they are to be Democrats. Millennials don't feel that way," Singh said. "I almost wish that (Clinton) had lost the popular vote so the party could understand what people want. But since they didn't, they can continue to remain arrogant."

Longtime Democratic strategist and former state party spokesman Roger Salazar appreciates that young voters in particular want change within the party to happen quickly. "But the bottom line," Salazar said Sunday on the convention floor, "is that we are a democracy, and a vote is a vote."

"But the new leaders of the party would be smart to bring in all elements of the people who lost and listen to them and not ignore them," Salazar said.

RoseAnn DeMoro, a national progressive leader who is the executive director of the National Nurses United union, told Ellis supporters that the loss was a "blow. It's wrong. And you know it's wrong. And you know it's going to hurt the Democratic Party."

But she also praised the activists for taking on the establishment and coming close to winning.

"For you to come, and us to come, this close is pretty amazing," DeMoro said. "Don't feel discouraged. You showed tremendous power and strength. These votes mean that you can take out just about any Democrat in the state if you continue to organize."

The division within the party was an ongoing subtext to the weekend convention. Some establishment figures in the party sought, without trying to take sides in the internecine battle, to unite Democrats against a common enemy.

"If last year's election taught us anything, it's that too many Americans believe our political system is rigged against them," billionaire San Francisco environmentalist Tom Steyer, a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate, told the delegates Sunday. "And they're not wrong, because corporate interests still hold the high cards at the table of power."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, a rising star in the party for his work investigating Russian interference in last year's presidential race, told delegates during his keynote address that the stakes are high and the party needs to unite. California Democrats need to remain strong, Schiff said, because they are the bulwark to counter the Trump administration.

"We must bind up our party's wounds, for only then can we save our country," Schiff said Saturday. "And it is not our country alone that needs us right now. In these extraordinary times, it can be said with little exaggeration that the fate of the free world depends upon us, even we here in our golden nation-state."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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