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Newton: A split among Democrats

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Gloria Romero is a Democrat. She was elected to the California Assembly as a Democrat and later to the state Senate. She served as Democratic leader of the Senate, the first woman to do so. Ben Austin is a Democrat too. He worked in the White House under President Clinton and was an ardent supporter of Barack Obama. Both Austin and Romero support reform of the nation's education system, and when Romero helped found an organization to push that effort, she and her co-founders (fellow Democrats) called it Democrats for Education Reform.

Eric Bauman chairs the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, and he takes offense at that name. It creates confusion, he says, especially when the group supports a candidate. Specifically, he cites the group's endorsement of Brian Johnson, who is running as a Democrat (though not the only Democrat) in the June primary for the Assembly in the 46th District. Bauman says the endorsement by a group with the word "Democrats" in its name suggests that the party itself is behind Johnson, whereas it hasn't endorsed any candidate.

So Bauman fired off a letter this month to Democrats for Education Reform, citing various California elections code sections and ordering the group to "cease and desist" its "unlawful" use of the word "Democrat" in its name. "This is about preventing voters from being fooled," he told me last week.

At one level, that's just silly. Surely, Democrats who support education reform are allowed to call themselves Democrats for Education Reform. But at another, it's illustrative of a deep division within the Democratic Party, especially in California, about how best to approach the question of improving schools.

The party that Bauman chairs simply does not agree on how to reform education. Austin, who heads a group called Parent Revolution, and Romero side with parents and argue that they should have the right to demand change on behalf of their children. This has at times put the two of them at odds with the state's teachers unions. The state party and its leaders, on the other hand, have tended to walk in lock step with those same unions.

Each side can marshal powerful arguments, and neither has a monopoly on truth. But it's worth noting that Bauman and other party leaders have another dog in this fight: money.

Teachers unions are among the Democratic Party's most stalwart funders, putting money behind candidates and causes throughout California. They elect school board members, back or oppose initiatives and can make or break governors. They have waged aggressive and sometimes deceptive campaigns to thwart parents' attempts to force change at failing schools, notably in Compton and most recently in the small town of Adelanto, where Parent Revolution and Democrats for Education Reform found themselves in direct conflict with teachers unions over control of the schools. And in both fights, the unions behaved with a certain arrogance, even a nastiness.

Bauman insists that his rejoinder to Democrats for Education Reform is about branding, not knuckling under to the unions. But it's worth noting that the Los Angeles County Democratic Party holds meetings at the offices of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents local teachers. A teachers union thus literally hosts the local party.

How nasty can this split within the Democratic Party get? Recently, Jeff Freitas, a top official with the California Federation of Teachers, wrote to the head of the California Democratic Party to complain that an executive of Parent Revolution had been hired by President Obama's campaign to act as his spokeswoman in California.

In his email, Freitas demanded that she be fired and said that if she were not, the federation might not participate in the reelection effort.

Think about that: California teachers might refuse to support the Democratic president of the United States because the president's campaign had the audacity to employ one official with whom the union had a disagreement.

Freitas told me last week that when he wrote that "we may not be able to participate" in the reelection effort if the official weren't dismissed, he wasn't making a threat but rather was warning the party that members of the union would balk. "We, the members, would not be willing to work with someone who's attacked us," he said.

Romero read his note differently. "I was just amazed," she said. "This is threatening people. It's bullying."

Warning or threat, it's emblematic of a struggle that is deeply divisive and monumentally important. Unions continue to throw their weight around on this issue, but more Democrats are rejecting them in favor of new models. The answer is not to insist that Democrats stop calling themselves Democrats but rather for the party to rethink a stubborn and self-destructive commitment to the status quo, one that is both bad politics and harmful to children.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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