Dispute over endorsing candidates divides California's Democratic Party

California’s primary election is months away, but Peter Allen has been inundated with mailers, texts and phone calls since the fall from Democrats who want to secure his support. Among the latest batch was a holiday card from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom with a photo of the gubernatorial candidate and his wife, four children, dog and two pet rabbits.

Allen, a 40-year-old school district employee from San Jose, is being aggressively courted because he is one of a few thousand California Democratic Party delegates who will decide whether the state party endorses candidates at its February convention in San Diego — a nod that could come with millions of dollars of support.

But this month, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman sent a letter to statewide candidates urging them not to seek the state party endorsement in February, prompting allegations that he was trying to silence dissenting voices. Bauman said his letter was simply meant to stave off disunity at the convention.

“I thought, ‘What? This is crazy,’ ” said former state party Controller Hilary Crosby. “What we’re mostly supposed to do is endorse — that’s our biggest responsibility.”

The dispute over endorsements is the latest battle between Bauman and those who backed his rival, Kimberly Ellis, in a bitter leadership contest in the spring that was decided by a handful of votes and resulted in a recount. Party delegates split into establishment and grass-roots factions, aligning themselves with Bauman and Ellis respectively, mirroring the divide among Democrats in deciding between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.

Crosby, who backed Ellis, said that the endorsement campaigns, which draw sign-waving supporters at the party’s conventions, create excitement for delegates who work hard to get elected and spend a considerable amount of money to attend.

Bauman countered that Crosby and those who agree with her are bitter about Ellis’ loss.

“Hilary Crosby has only one agenda and that is to screw with me because her candidate lost and she can’t get over it,” Bauman said. “These people cannot accept the outcome of the election, so anything I do, they question, they critique.”

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The dispute comes as an ongoing contentious debate about the future of the California Democratic Party is taking place. The party has long held control of every statewide office in California but has seen a growing divide between its liberal and establishment wings. The tension flared up during the contest between Bauman and Ellis.

Crosby argues that Bauman is trying to aid several candidates from his home base in Los Angeles, including U.S. Senate candidate Kevin de León, who is running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat. De León’s support was crucial to Bauman winning the chairperson’s race in the spring.

Crosby also noted that if the state party does not endorse at its convention, the only other opportunity for it to do so will be at an executive board meeting after the primary. The executive board is a smaller body whose members include a large proportion of party insiders such as donors and labor leaders compared with the overall body of delegates.

Bauman said he is merely following the tradition of his predecessor. The letter he sent to candidates was nearly identical to those former party Chairman John Burton sent to campaigns in 2010 and 2014. But those election cycles were different from the current one, with fewer contested races and other irregularities.

The one point Bauman and Crosby agree upon is that few if any candidates will heed Bauman’s request.

Allen said that despite telling campaigns he doesn’t plan to participate in the endorsement races, most will not stop contacting him. Entreaties continue to fill his inbox, mailbox and voicemail.

“It seems like half these folks don’t get the message,” he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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