CDP Convention Leaves Progressives Divided

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James Williams and Lourdes Oliva with Kimberly Ellis at the California Latina Democrats meeting at the Yosemite Falls Café in Fresno on Feb. 20, 2016. Photo by Richard D. Iyall, Cowlitz

By Emily Cameron

As supporters of Kimberly Ellis, candidate for California Democratic Party (CDP) chair, huddled under patches of shade on a warm Sacramento afternoon at Cesar Chavez Plaza, a local man unaffiliated with the political gathering began to shout complaints in our general direction.

“Look at all these damn Democrats,” the man hollered.

On the opposite end of the park, a mounted police officer gazed at the growing crowds from atop his horse but did not interfere or issue commands—not even when Ellis climbed on a cement platform with the words “BY PERMIT ONLY” plastered on the side and began speaking to the sweaty crew of activists in bright pink t-shirts.

“One of the things I’ve talked about this entire campaign is getting this party back to basics, which means being a party that is truthful, that is democratic, that doesn’t just talk about its values but lives its values,” Ellis said. “One of the things that this party cannot be is a party that is just like Trump and the Republicans—a party that operates in closed rooms, smoke-filled rooms behind high curtains, in secrecy and shadows. It is time for this party to be a transparent party. And so, I have asked for an audit.”

The news came as somewhat of a shock to the crowd. As a largely Bernie Sanders supporter-based following, folks were unaccustomed to a progressive candidate refusing to concede. When Keith Ellison lost to Tom Perez as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Ellison immediately partnered with Perez by accepting the role of deputy chair and has since pushed a narrative of unity. Even Sen. Sanders himself caved to the pressure of “stronger together” and endorsed Hillary Clinton before the Democratic convention in July 2016.

Two years of campaigning boiled down to 61 votes. Sixty-one delegates among a crowd of nearly 3,000 Democrats made the difference in an election where the winner serves a four-year term. This race represented more than a symbolic gesture of the party’s ideals; faced with the essential task of flipping stubborn red districts, the new chair will be instrumental in determining the success or failure of the CDP in 2018. Taking back the House of Representatives would give the Democrats a massive surge of energy leading into the 2020 presidential election.

Media outlets painted the CDP chair election as a grandiose battle between Bernie and Hillary followers, but this image is far from the truth; both chair candidates had support from the two major ideological wings of the party. Because Ellis and her opponent, Eric C. Bauman, both supported Clinton in the primary, Berniecrats had no true representative in the 2017 CDP chair race, which began way back in 2015. Traditional party loyalists had two Clinton-supporting options to pick from, and with no pressure to rally behind one specific candidate for fear of a Bernie supporter taking the reins, the numbers split. Berniecrats argued over which candidate was more progressive, and a consensus was not reached. Thus, Ellis and Bauman had a mixed bag of voters on either side.

Plenty of Clinton supporters stood behind Ellis because she would be the first Black woman elected as chair and had a longstanding history as a Democratic organizer with the nonprofit candidate recruitment agency Emerge, whereas other Clinton backers sided with openly-gay Bauman who was backed by California Young Democrats and labor unions. Some Bernie supporters favored Bauman for his experience with the party, whereas Ellis had never been on a central committee, while others believed Ellis’ message of change stayed true to the Sanders vision. Ultimately, it was Ellis who earned the endorsement of Sanders’ organization Our Revolution, and a solid majority of Bernie supporters backed her as a result.

During the three-day convention, the palpable tension lingered in the air over every meeting, caucus, party and event within the Sacramento Convention Center. The heightened pressures and bubbling emotions grew worse after repeated incidents of outgoing chair John Burton using the F-word and flipping the bird at supporters of Sanders and/or Ellis.

“Shut the f*** up and go outside,” Burton shouted at California Nurses Association members protesting DNC Chair Tom Perez.

Oddly, it was this deep sense of division and dysfunction that brought people closer. In a supreme twist of fate, Clinton and Sanders supporters worked together to push for their preferred candidates in a way that the forced, fabricated calls for unity never could. As much as this convention looked like a mess from the outside, the reality is that the party was indeed very divided—but not along the lines one might expect.

The 2017 CDP chair race was not a question of Bernie progressives failing to garner enough numbers, but rather an issue of Bernie progressives being divided among two candidates. It is safe to assume at least 61 Berniecrat delegates from around the state voted for Bauman. By the time the next race for chair begins, at the rate that the democratic socialist movement is growing, Bernie progressives will more than likely outnumber the old guard.

“What you all saw at the convention hall yesterday…what they felt…[was] undeniable. We need to continue this movement,” Ellis said. “We need to continue powering forward. Understand that we are on a precipice, not of a death…this is not the darkness of the tomb, but this is the darkness of the womb. We are on the verge of the rebirth of the Democratic Party.”

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Emily Cameron is a Fresno journalist with bylines in the Fresno Bee, the Clovis Independent, Central Valley Magazine and many more. Cameron serves as an at-large Executive Committee member of the LGBT Caucus of the California Democratic Party and election integrity/voter access issue team leader for Progressive Democrats of America in Fresno.