The California Democratic Party’s money and political muscle proved pivotal to the success of former Gov. Jerry Brown, helping bankroll his 2010 campaign victory against Republican billionaire Meg Whitman and a ballot measure that eliminated the GOP’s leverage over the state budget.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom may not be as fortunate. The mutually beneficial alliance that has traditionally existed between California governors and their political party is in peril as state Democrats, fractured by a sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of party Chairman Eric Bauman, prepare to elect a new leader at the California Democratic Party’s annual convention in San Francisco this weekend.
Newsom’s ambitious agenda, which includes expanding healthcare coverage and addressing California’s desperate need for affordable housing, depends greatly on having a strong, credible party behind him that will work to preserve the Democrats’ supermajority in the Legislature and push through statewide ballot initiatives that further the governor’s policy priorities. To deliver, the party must find a leader who has the trust of Democratic activists, officeholders and — most important — generous donors.
Newsom “stands to lose a lot if we’re not rowing in the same direction,” said Democratic political strategist Robin Swanson, a former spokeswoman for the party. “There has to be a symbiotic trust between the governor and the chair of the California Democratic Party. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Newsom has not endorsed any of the Democrats running to be the party’s next leader, a field that is led by Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Rusty Hicks, party Vice Chairman Daraka Larimore-Hall and Bay Area activist Kimberly Ellis, who narrowly lost to Bauman in 2017. Other candidates include attorney Lenore Albert, privacy activist Mike Katz-Lacabe, retired college professor Rita Ramirez and businessman Mike Saifie.
Though Newsom did weigh in on the race for state Democratic Party leader two years ago when he was lieutenant governor, he wasn’t decisive — he endorsed both Bauman and Ellis. Newsom backed Bauman early in the race and later took heat when he also endorsed Ellis closer to the vote. In a Facebook post, Ellis said she wasn’t “a big fan” of dual endorsements. She backed Newsom’s Democratic rival in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin.
The governor, who is scheduled to speak at the convention Saturday morning, said this time around he’s been too busy dealing with his proposed budget and policy initiatives to become involved in internal Democratic politics.
“I just haven’t been focused on it. It’s obviously important to have a unified party, but when has that ever been the case?” Newsom said after a recent news conference in Oakland. “I imagine we’ll have the same headlines we’ve had for 50 years. Democrats are Democrats. And that’s a good thing.”
But shortly after Bauman’s resignation in late November, a person close to the governor reached out through intermediaries to gauge Hicks’ interest in running for party chairman, according to two sources with ties to the governor or Hicks who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the matter.
However, the overtures came before any front-running candidates for party chair announced they were running, and Newsom has avoided making any public statements about the race.
Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and chair of the state party’s Women’s Caucus, said Newsom has been wise to keep his distance.
“We assume he isn’t going to touch this with a 10-foot pole,” Pelosi said. “We need him to be one of the healers.”
Even if Newsom was inclined to back one of the candidates in the chair’s race, an endorsement from the governor could backfire — it might not be welcomed by delegates, who could perceive it as meddling.
Over the last few years, a growing number of activists have made an imprint on the party, working to buck the wishes of longtime members and leaders. Last year, activists voted to endorse former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles over longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, and led a successful effort to quash legislation that would have dramatically increased political campaign contribution limits for legislative leaders.
The anti-establishment fervor in the state party was touched off by lingering resentment between supporters of two 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, compounded by Clinton’s subsequent loss, which put Donald Trump in the White House.
Ellis tapped into a wellspring of disaffected Sanders backers in the 2017 race for state Democratic Party chair but narrowly lost to Bauman and challenged the results in a two-month-long appeal.
Tension within the state party briefly subsided after the 2018 election, when Democrats scored a substantial political victory by gaining seven congressional seats in California and gained control of the House of Representatives. Along with Newsom’s victory as governor, the Democrats also won a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature and led a successful campaign against a statewide ballot measure from Republicans to repeal a 2017 increase in the gas tax.
Then, in late November, a series of sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Bauman, threatening to undercut the party’s platform on equality and inclusion in the era of the #MeToo movement. Bauman resigned that same month, and three lawsuits have since been filed claiming that the party leadership ignored his alleged misconduct.
The stakes are high for whoever takes over as party leader. The next chair must not only address the party’s internal workplace culture and operations but also prepare for an earlier-than-usual March presidential primary in California and defend Democrats who narrowly won seats in Congress and the Legislature in 2018.
“It’s really important that the California Democratic Party not run itself off the cliff right now,” Swanson said.
Former state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, who held the post during Brown’s two most recent terms as the state’s chief executive, said his strong bond with the former governor was a crucial ingredient to the party’s success during those years. No Republican has won a statewide election since 2006, and shortly before Brown left office Democrats held a nearly 20-percentage-point advantage over the GOP in voter registration in the state.
Burton said his most significant victory was his push in 2010 for Proposition 25, the measure California voters approved allowing lawmakers to pass the state budget with a simple majority in each legislative house rather than a two-thirds vote, eliminating one of the GOP’s most powerful bargaining tools in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Under Burton, the party also provided a fundraising lifeline to Brown in the 2010 governor’s race. Whitman, a former EBay chief executive, spent a record $177 million on her gubernatorial bid. By comparison, Brown spent just $36 million, but his campaign was buttressed by spending and on-the-ground campaign efforts by the state Democratic Party and its allies, including labor unions.
In turn, Brown used his political cache while in office to help raise funds for the California Democratic Party, trusting that its leadership would spend the money in a way that benefited his agenda, whether it was electing Democrats to the Legislature or backing statewide initiatives.
“It’s not about getting your name in the paper,” Burton said of the role of party chairman. “It’s about working your ass off to see that Democrats win elections.”
Duf Sundheim, who was leader of the California Republican Party for four years while Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, said a new chair’s greatest hurdle is keeping all factions of the party from devouring each other. And if there is infighting, Sundheim said, the chair must shield the party’s standard-bearer, the governor, from any political fallout.
“You take care of the blocking and tackling for him,” Sundheim said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said Newsom has done a lot to reunite the state Democratic Party in just a few months in office. The governor’s support for universal healthcare, his ongoing feud with Trump and a decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty have appealed to both the Democratic establishment and the party’s most fervent activists.
“Gavin, over his career, has demonstrated a willingness to stick his neck out,” Ridley-Thomas said.
During his short tenure as governor, Newsom’s policies have aligned closely with the left-leaning ideology of the party’s activist base, particularly on issues such as the death penalty and healthcare, Christine Pelosi said.
But San Francisco State political scientist Jason McDaniel said Newsom may be wise to avoid a close embrace of state Democratic Party activists, especially if he has an eye on running for president. They have lobbied Newsom to phase out oil production in California, a proposal he has not endorsed, and to place a moratorium on new charter schools.
“If there’s a perception that the party is too liberal, he might want to keep some distance,” McDaniel said.
The need to juggle competing priorities could ultimately leave Newsom no choice.
Former Gov. Gray Davis, who enjoyed a close relationship with then-Chairman Art Torres, said he often used the state Democratic Party leader as a sounding board for ideas. But he avoided getting involved with internal party politics about who should lead the organization and how.
“You just have so many other battles you have to fight as governor,” Davis said. “You have to kind of pick your challenges.”