By Michael D. Evans
On June 1, Rusty Hicks was elected the new chair of the California Democratic Party. In a special election to replace Eric Bauman, who resigned before his term ended, Hicks won 59% of the vote in a seven-candidate contest that included Kimberly Ellis (35%), the former Emerge California executive director who had lost to Bauman in a close election in 2017, and Daraka Larimore-Hall (6%), vice chair of the CDP.
Before becoming chair, Hicks was the president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. He was raised in Texas by a single mother. There, he saw “firsthand the challenges of attaining the American dream” yet was inspired by his mother to serve his community. He is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and an Afghanistan war veteran.
With the L.A. County Federation of Labor, Hicks “managed a large, complex organization that was dedicated to electing more young people, women, LGBTQ candidates and candidates of color while moving forward a progressive policy agenda for working people.”
During the campaign, Hicks visited all 58 counties—in 58 days no less—and has committed to visit every county each year that he serves as chair.
Hicks laid out an ambitious “First 100 Days” plan during his campaign. The plan promises a “more inclusive party that embraces our diversity—a beautiful tapestry of backgrounds, geographies and ideas” via a seven-point strategy:
• Develop a new misconduct policy.
• Provide grassroots training and development.
• Answer the big questions together.
• Reduce the high cost of serving in the party.
• Support the party’s presence in rural California.
• Ensure financial transparency.
• Offer more seats at the decision-making table.
“We’re making great progress” with the plan, says Hicks.
Misconduct policy. Accusations of a culture within the party of bullying and harassment led to the downfall of Hicks’ predecessor. Addressing that reality was a key focus of the chair campaign. During the campaign, Hicks promised to “ensure a culture in which every person engaging with the party feels safe. Misconduct, harassment and bullying will not be tolerated.”
“We have implemented a new policy on misconduct and harassment for our employees,” says Hicks, “and are taking the required steps to enshrine the policy in the CDP’s bylaws.”
Training and development. Hicks has announced the hiring of a training and development director to “assist grassroots leaders with 1) organizational leadership, management and fund-raising; 2) local candidate recruitment and development; and 3) program development to include…voter registration, phone and walk programs, and social/digital media support.”
The big questions. Hicks created an ad hoc committee on the CDP’s standing committees shortly after his election. That committee, which was co-chaired by Fresno County Democratic Party Chair Michael D. Evans, has completed its work. Hicks says that the committee’s recommendations for enhanced diversity and inclusion on standing committees are being implemented.
“We will initiate the same kind of conversations around both reforming the ADEM [Assembly District election] process and ensuring we can fund our party’s work in line with our party’s values,” says Hicks.
Expenses. Hicks has outlined a strategy to ensure that all delegates can participate in the party. “We must continue to reduce cost barriers for students, seniors and workers in low-wage jobs—the Californians we are striving to uplift.” He is committed to a 25% reduction in delegate expenses and will provide a progress report on that effort at the CDP’s August Executive Board meeting in San Jose.
Rural California. “Our rural communities and regions are not monolithic,” notes Hicks. “In the Central Valley, there are concerns about clean and safe water, healthcare, immigration and educational opportunities. In our rural areas in the far north, the concerns are much different.”
Hicks plans to be “a strong ally for our rural communities” by helping to raise funds to register voters, get out the vote and support Democratic candidates.
Transparency. Hicks says that he already has initiated measures to enhance the party’s financial transparency. Furthermore, he supports the “current policy of not accepting contributions from oil companies, Walmart, charter schools and private prisons” and will continue those bans.
Decision making. The CDP currently has five statewide officers (chair, two vice chairs, controller and secretary). Hicks proposes expanding that to nine with four additional vice chairs “to more fully represent the diversity of California’s Democrats including the participation of at least one undocumented Californian.” Each vice chair would have specific assignments.
Hicks also intends to review “the current number, type, structure, scope of work and support for regional directors, caucuses and statewide chartered organizations and seek to expand their voice within our party.”
The Central Valley has long felt like the forgotten stepchild relative to statewide politics and legislative outcomes. Hicks says that he wants to put the CDP’s “attention, organizing and resources into the Central Valley.”
“First, we plan to bring an Executive Board [meeting] to the Central Valley in 2020—an opportunity to showcase the region’s opportunities and challenges,” says Hicks.
“Second, county committees and Democratic clubs will be able to access the party’s training programs to build capacity.
“Finally, the Central Valley will play a central role in our 2020 coordinated campaigns to protect and build upon the gains of 2018.”
Holding Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield) and Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) accountable is a key goal, and Hicks says that “Central Valley grassroots leaders must have the support they need from the rest of us.”
Indeed, Hicks already has invested in three Central Valley counties—Fresno, Tulare and Kern—to boost voter registration in the McCarthy and Nunes districts.
“We need to engage in local races like school boards, water boards and city council races,” adds Hicks, “and do a better job building a pipeline of progressive Democrats who can run for higher office.”
On other issues:
Fair primary. “The Chair of the party has a responsibility to ensure a level playing field—a high-road, robust and transparent debate—for all presidential candidates. I will not publicly/privately endorse a candidate for President before the party selects its nominee.”
Green New Deal. “We will engage Democrats across the state to 1) confront climate change, 2) ensure a just transition for workers and 3) energize a new green economy.”
Fracking. “I support transitioning to a fossil- and fracking-free California as soon as possible.”
Messaging. “A one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to messaging does not work. And for our rural-specific areas, the messaging and approach will have to come from grassroots leaders in rural communities.”
Legislation. “By building out a statewide infrastructure that engages nine million Democrats across the state, we can push elected officials to do the right thing—protecting them when they do and holding them accountable when they don’t.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The DCCC attempts to identify and support candidates in Congressional districts throughout the country. Its relationship with county and state parties is often rocky. Hicks says that “early and constant communication along with proactive collaboration in joint political programming is the best way to ensure a productive relationship with the DCCC.”
“I’m proud to represent the California Democratic Party,” concludes Hicks. “I intend to use my time and talent to bring our party’s platform to life by engaging nine million Democrats to improve the lives of 40 million Californians.”
Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.