California Democrats face crisis of credibility after lawsuits

California Democrats face crisis of credibility after lawsuits
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More than a dozen presidential candidates will descend on San Francisco later this month to woo delegates attending the California Democratic Party’s state convention. 

But those candidates may be just a sideshow, as delegates battle between themselves over the future of a party shaken to its core by a series of lawsuits alleging harassment and retaliation.

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Amid the speeches and glad-handing, delegates will pick a new state party chair to take over for Eric Bauman,who resigned in November, just weeks after California Democrats swept to historic wins in congressional and state legislative races, in the face of multiple allegations of improper behavior. 

In the months since Bauman’s exit, current and former employees have filed three lawsuits against the party alleging sexual harassment and abuse, misconduct and a hostile work environment in which unwanted advances, drinking and retaliation against whistleblowers were common.

“We were really on a high, on a wave,” said Christine Pelosi, chair of the state Democratic Women’s Caucus and daughter of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTimeline: The Trump whistleblower complaint DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Ukraine could badly damage both Donald Trump and the Democrats MORE (D-Calif.). “Then, there was a real crash around Thanksgiving when the lawsuit happened.”

Now, the largest state Democratic Party in the country is at a crossroads, less than a year before its Super Tuesday presidential primary and about a year and a half before it must defend several new members of Congress and its supermajority in the legislature.

A bitter fight in the chair’s race last year — complete with allegations of vote-rigging and challenged ballots —  left the party deeply divided, and the lawsuits and recriminations have ripped open those wounds.

“A lot of the healing that had been done, it was like right back to where some people had been at the end of the last chair’s race or worse,” Christine Pelosi said. “What we don’t want is another competitive race spilling over into a summer of acrimony.”

Of the seven candidates who have qualified for the ballot this year, three are seen as front-runners: Kimberly Ellis, a San Francisco-area Democratic activist who narrowly lost to Bauman last year; Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; and Daraka Larimore-Hall, who heads the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party.

If none of the candidates receive a majority of the vote on Saturday, June 1, the top two vote-getters will face off in a runoff the following day. Most observers say Ellis and Hicks are likely to make the runoff.

All three major contenders have pledged to rebuild the party to rid it of a boy’s club culture. But Ellis and Hicks diverge in the way they view the role of the party, and whether it has a role in influencing the legislative agenda in Sacramento and Washington.

Ellis, who last year had support from Our Revolution, the group that grew out of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, wants the party to push Democratic legislators on some issues.

She opposed a bill introduced in the state Assembly this year that would have given legislators wider latitude in raising and spending campaign money, which would have given them a measure of independence from the party.

“This is a time when our party must do more, be more and mean more in people’s everyday lives,” Ellis said in an interview. “They want this party to be a platform for educating the community, a platform for connecting the dots as to how politics touches our everyday lives, a platform for empowering people.”

Hicks is less willing to say the party should exert ideological pressure.

“At this particular moment in the party’s history, I think it’s important we have a thoughtful, strategic leader who both understands and can build upon the victories of 2018,” Hicks told The Hill. “The state party can play an important role in partnering with grassroots leaders to ensure that elected officials on the local level are carrying out the Democratic values that you see at the state level.”

The three front-runners say they will remain neutral in a wide-open presidential field, one that includes two Californians, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Warren avoids attacks while building momentum MORE (D) and Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Swalwell to DNI: 'You do not have to be a part of a lawless administration' MORE (D).

California Democrats will meet again in six months to decide whether to endorse any candidate, though no candidate is likely to win a majority of the votes necessary to secure the nod.

In interviews with more than a dozen delegates who plan to vote in the race, few were concerned that the turmoil within the party would have lasting electoral consequences — but most said the next chair needs to move quickly to reform the toxic culture.

“Obviously we picked the wrong person to chair last time, and whoever is elected will need to take swift, tangible steps to address issues of sexual harassment and misconduct within the party,” said Leslie Austin, who chairs the San Benito County Democratic Party and who backs Larimore-Hall.

“The party has been somewhat disorganized,” said Raymond Bishop, who heads the party’s business and professional caucus. “It has to be well run, well organized, and the members have to be in the loop.”