Hope, Fear of Division as California Democrats Prepare for Convention

(L-R) Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, state Treasurer John Chiang, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa participated in a governor candidate forum on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. (Photos courtesy of Wikicommons)

Scott Shafer co-hosts Political Breakdown, a new weekly podcast and radio program on California politics. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

As California Democrats gather in San Diego this weekend for their statewide convention, the tumultuous end to their 2017 convention in Sacramento is casting a shadow over the runup to the June primary election.

One question is, with so much on the line as Democrats aim to flip several California congressional seats from red to blue, can the party set aside its internal differences to focus on beating Republicans?

"My team and I have settled into place," said Eric Bauman, the new chair of the California Democratic Party. It was his election last May as chair by a razor-thin margin over insurgent candidate Kimberly Ellis -- whose supporters wore T-shirts reading "Unbought, Unbossed" -- that left the last state party convention in disarray.


Ellis refused to concede and demanded a recount.

After an audit of the voting confirmed Bauman's narrow victory, Ellis and her supporters called for more transparency and inclusivity in the state party. The melee prompted the New York Times to write about bitter disarray among California Democrats.

"Those who are committed to Kimberly still are," said Bauman this week. "But many, many of them called, emailed and texted to thank me for being inclusive and as available as I am."

Bauman says he has adopted a different kind of style from his predecessor, John Burton, but it hasn't completely mollified Ellis.

"What's interesting is, a year later there is still an incredible divide within the party," Ellis said this week. "It’s still fractured in many ways."

Ellis said that after the bitter election, she and her supporters asked Bauman to make appointments to committees that reflected the very close election for chair. But she says the appointments were overwhelmingly supporters of Bauman.

"That act in and of itself in many ways poured salt in the wound very early on and set the tone and tempo," she said.

Amid the lingering animosity, there's a lot at stake this weekend for candidates hoping to secure a coveted endorsement from the delegates. The required 60 percent threshold will be tough to meet, especially in races like the gubernatorial contest, where four Democrats --  Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin -- all have constituencies within the party.

Amanda Renteria discusses her campaign for Congress with 23 ABC News in May 2014. (23 ABC News via YouTube)

Another Democrat, Amanda Renteria, whose unexpected entry into the race last week set off speculation and rumors about her intentions, will not be given a speaking slot.

Bauman called her candidacy a "misstep, timewise," and added, "I’m scratching my head. I’ve known her for years. But I knew nothing about this."

In the U.S. Senate race -- where state Senate President Kevin de León is challenging incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein -- the endorsement vote will say a lot about whether grass-roots Democrats are ready to turn the page toward a new generation of leaders, or whether they express loyalty to an accomplished woman whose sense of collegiality and bipartisanship is out of vogue in the Trump era.

Antipathy toward President Trump has animated Democrats in Sacramento and beyond, as evidenced by the number of Democrats challenging Republican members of Congress and their extraordinary success raising money.

But is it too much of a good thing?

Take the 39th Congressional District in Orange County, where incumbent Ed Royce has announced he's retiring. Three Democrats in that race have a half-million dollars or more to spend. Two other Democrats are waging serious campaigns. The concern is that they might split the vote, allowing two Republicans to sneak into the November election under the top-two primary system.

Party chair Bauman remembers the 2012 congressional race in the Inland Empire, in which Democrat Pete Aguilar came in third behind two Republicans in a large field of Democrats who split the vote.

Bauman says Democrats learned a lesson in that district, where Aguilar came back two years later to win the seat.

"We've been actively engaged in conversations with candidates to find alternative offices they might seek," Bauman said. He's hoping this weekend's candidate endorsements will help thin the field of Democrats.

On the other hand, with memories of last year's acrimonious convention and charges that Bauman was a "old-time political boss," he might want to tread lightly on encouraging certain Democrats to step aside in the interest of the party.

No one knows the stakes better than Bauman, who thinks the road to regaining control of the House of Representatives runs through California.

"The only way we can slow Trump's divisive and dangerous agenda is to put the brakes on many of the things he’s trying to do," said Bauman.

But before than can happen, the party needs to unite and avoid a civil war that could diminish its chances in November.