A bitter fight for leadership of the California Democratic Party won’t shake the foundations of the party. The future of Democrats in California, let alone nationally, won’t depend on whether a gruff Angeleno named Eric Bauman or a Bay Area outsider named Kimberly Ellis has the role of chief party functionary in the state.
Bauman defeated Ellis by a slim margin at the party convention in May, and Ellis and her backers have been disputing the outcome ever since. “I’m skeptical that this fight means anything outside the proverbial insiders,” said former Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “This is the post-traumatic stress of having lost the unlosable election.”
Democrats may have lost an unlosable race to an unthinkable president, but they still dominate in California, controlling every statewide elective office and both chambers of the legislature. Yet the leadership battle in the de facto capital of Democratic America could nonetheless have a corrosive effect.
The story told by the losing side — at least so far — of the California Democratic leadership contest has markers that are bound to resonate with certain activists and voters. “Ineligible Votes Swung Democratic Party Chair Election to Bauman,” states a June press release on Ellis’s Facebook page.
I have no capacity to judge whether Ellis’s collection of accusations — “1 vote from a proxy residing outside the district of his assigning delegate” — add up to a coup in the state party. But the shape of the story matters, especially because we’ve heard it all before: The fix was in. The wrong people held sway. The impersonal, moneyed powers-that-be crushed the authentic voice of the people.
It’s the same story many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders told themselves when Sanders lost the 2016 presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. Sanders would’ve won but for the nefarious influence of the establishment or unfair rules designed to punish insurgents or improper vote counting that didn’t project what the vote would have been had it been something different from what it was.
There is, of course, some truth running through such refrains. There is something like an establishment, and it is allied with wealthy Democrats. But the policy aims of the establishment are not vastly different from those pursued by Sanders supporters. What differentiates the establishment from the Sanders crowd is experience, capacity and realism as much as wealth.
To use that as the basis of a persecution tale is only one step removed from Donald Trump’s lies about millions of illegal votes padding his opponent’s total and his warnings, back when he thought he would lose, about a “rigged” election engineered by elites to deny his voters the satisfaction of showering comeuppance and contempt on their deserving targets.