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'Old school versus new school:' The battle over who will run the California Democratic Party

A pivotal election is underway in California that could push this Democratic stronghold even further left and recalibrate the direction of arguably the most influential state political party in the nation.

Staunchly liberal and pro-union, the top two contenders for chair of the California Democratic Party offer a sharp contrast in style and strategy. Eric Bauman is a bullish, Bronx-born union organizer and the consummate party insider. Democratic organizer Kimberly Ellis is a provocative Bay Area progressive, embraced as the outsider by a wave of Bernie Sanders supporters leading an insurgency against the party establishment.

The race — and last year’s divisive Democratic presidential primary — have created a rift among the delegates who will choose a new chair as the state leans into its emerging role as the epicenter of liberal resistance to the nascent Trump administration.

Initially, Bauman’s bid for the post possessed an air of inevitability, fed by endorsements from most of California’s top Democrats and the political allegiances he’s forged since becoming Los Angeles County party chair in 2000 and a state party vice chair in 2009. But controversy surrounding Bauman’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, in part, opened the door for Ellis.

Ellis is the former director of a nonprofit devoted to electing more women to office, and she would be the first woman of color to lead the state party. She has accused California’s top Democrats of being so beholden to special interests and corporate donors that they’ve lost sight of their liberal ideals — echoing Sanders’ populist bid for president.

“This is not an infomercial with a predetermined outcome,” said Christine Pelosi of San Francisco, chair of the party’s powerful Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “It’s hot because [of] new people, it’s hot because of Donald Trump, it’s hot because when you’re out of power, the political party means more. California is the... cash ATM of presidential politics and every presidential candidate will pass through the new chair’s office. It’s, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD.”

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The decision now rests in the hands of the state party’s 3,300 delegates, an amalgam of elected officials, activists, union leaders and other loyalists who will elect the new chair during the party’s convention in Sacramento this weekend. The current chairman, former Senate President John Burton, is retiring after an eight-year term.

Bauman and Ellis are closely aligned on most of the state party’s liberal platform, including support for single-payer healthcare, a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, abortion rights and stronger protections for the LGBTQ community.

Both also promised to rebuild the party’s bench by helping Democrats running for local office.

“This is not a lesser of two evils. We have two highly qualified candidates who have different work histories and experience,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, who has endorsed Ellis.

What the race comes down to, Mitchell said, is “old school versus new school.”

That contrast was clear when the candidates debated in front of a San Diego union hall packed with party delegates last week. Bauman called for the party to expand on its successes, while Ellis said it had lost its way.

“I’m running not just to bring a new vision to the party. I’m running not just to bring new perspective, not just to change the tone, tenor and culture of our politics,” said Ellis, who received the warmest reception of the three candidates. “I’m running to be chair of the California Democratic Party to redefine what it means to be a Democrat and get this party back to basics.”

Bauman, who has spent nearly 25 years in leadership positions at various Democratic groups, held up California as one of the party’s greatest success stories.

Democrats hold every statewide office and an iron-grip on the Legislature and congressional delegation. California drives efforts to combat climate change and protect immigrants and on issues such as same-sex marriage.

“We’re the only state party in the country that actually knows how to do it right,” Bauman said.

The son of an Army dentist, Bauman, 58, moved to Hollywood from New York when he was 18, eventually becoming a registered nurse. In the early 1980s, he met his future husband, also a nurse, at a hospital coffee shop.

He later organized labor at hospitals and became active with the Los Angeles County Stonewall Democratic Club, alarmed as the AIDS crisis unfolded. After serving as the group’s president, he was elected to lead the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

Bauman’s earned a reputation as a gruff and bullying East Coast-style party boss, which he does not deny.

“I am, in appropriate circumstances, very aggressive. But on the natural, because of my Bronx demeanor, I always come off like a tough guy,” he said. “People come up to me on the street all the time and think I am Joe Pesci. I try to work with that.”

Bauman shocked Democrats last week when he sent out an email to party members denying what he said were circulating rumors that he had inappropriate relationships with teenage boys. Ellis immediately denounced the allegations. Bauman called the innuendo “the latest tactic in the politics of personal destruction that have infected this race for CDP Chair.”

California’s restive Sanders faction feel the party establishment failed to deliver on issues such as universal healthcare and remains addicted to contributions from corporate America.

“Democrats are a supermajority and we’ve got a speaker of the Assembly who doesn’t think now is the time for a Medicare-for-all system. You have a governor ridiculing the idea. And we still haven’t banned fracking,” said Joey Aszterbaum of Hemet, a Sanders supporter. “It’s the party of Arnold Schwarzenegger Democrats.”

Earlier this year, activists such as Aszterbaum overwhelmed the state party’s elections for more than 1,100 delegate spots, a coordinated effort to influence the party from the inside. Those elections, held in each state Assembly district, have traditionally been staid and predictable, attracting a handful of votes from the party faithful. This time, some were swamped by hundreds of progressive voters.

While estimates vary, they likely captured more than half the slots in contention, with many now backing Ellis even though she — like Bauman — supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.

“Kimberly Ellis is that sort of change agent. She’s no Bernie Sanders, but we’re with her,” Aszterbaum said.

Ellis, 43, lives in the East Bay city of Richmond with her husband and two children. She was born in Tennessee and hopscotched from base to base with her Army officer father. She earned a law degree but said she opted not to take the bar exam because she wanted to go into public service.

Ellis worked at Emerge America, an organization that trains women to run for office, before becoming director of its California affiliate seven years ago.

“She’s a true outsider,” said Don Nielsen, director of government relations for the California Nurses Assn., an Ellis supporter and a pivotal player in the delegate strategy. “She seems to have embraced the progressive issues I’ve been talking about. She wants to get the control of the party back at the base level.”

Ellis wants to see Democrats in Sacramento flex their muscles more, especially when it comes to addressing poverty and adopting single-payer healthcare.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think enough of our Democratic elected officials, our constitutional officers or our governor, have spent enough time with people who live in poverty, with our homeless communities, to really understand it at a deep level,” Ellis said. “I’d like to see more of that. There’s a lot of work to do.”

But Jason McDaniel, a political scientist at San Francisco State, questions whether the wave of new delegates will be enough to reshape the party leadership. The other two-thirds of delegates are longtime party loyalists, Democratic elected officials or appointees of those politicians.

“These are people who are happy with the Democratic Party,” McDaniel said. “They want a chair to help raise money and elect candidates.”

But Bauman raised the ire of many party stalwarts last year when his political consulting firm Victoryland Partners took more than $100,000 from the pharmaceutical industry to oppose Proposition 61, a ballot measure championed by Sanders that sought to lower drug prices. Voters rejected the measure on Nov. 8.

At the time, Bauman was vice chair of the state party, which was neutral on the measure. He insisted the campaign work was handled by his business partners, including his husband, and that he never lobbied any Democrat on the measure.

“In hindsight, would it have been better … if my partners hadn’t done four months of work for ‘PhRMA’? Yes, it would have been better,” Bauman said. “It has been incredibly costly to me politically and has had a huge personal toll on me.”

Along with Ellis and Bauman, the race includes Orange County attorney Lenore Albert-Sheridan, considered a long shot.

The chair serves a four-year term and, unlike the head of the state GOP who is not paid, receives a salary just shy of $120,000 a year.

Ellis and Bauman both claim to have enough support to win.

Democratic strategist Darry Sragow views the difficult-to-predict contest as a “Rorschach test for the California Democratic Party.”

phil.willon@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon @LATSeema

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