The Fight Against the California Democratic Establishment Has Only Just Begun

Kimberly Ellis lost her bid for the chair of the California Democratic Party, but that has not stopped her fighting spirit.

Theo Anderson June 19, 2017

Kimberly Ellis speaks to supporters in downtown Sacramento's Caesar E. Chavez Plaza, vowing to review the election results of her loss to Eric Bauman for California Democratic Party Chairman, after the conclusion of the California Democratic State Convention, at the Convention Center, May 21, 2017. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Kim­ber­ly Ellis ran for chair of the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty at the party’s state con­ven­tion in May. She lost by an offi­cial count of 62 votes, out of about 3,000 cast, but Ellis and her sup­port­ers have dis­put­ed and chal­lenged the results, and she has refused to con­cede. Her oppo­nent, Eric Bau­man, is a long­time insid­er in the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Ellis was the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Emerge Cal­i­for­nia — an orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to increas­ing the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in pol­i­tics — before enter­ing the race.

This continues to be a movement towards forcing power, those who are in power and those who wield power, to share that power in order to empower grassroots activists.

At the People’s Sum­mit in Chica­go on June 10, Ellis spoke briefly at a ses­sion devot­ed to trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty,” not­ing that the race for par­ty chair was real­ly about the heart and soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. It was a cam­paign to rede­fine what it means to be a Democrat.”

Ellis spoke with In These Times at the Sum­mit about the last month’s con­test and her vision for the party.

Theo Ander­son: What are your take­aways from the expe­ri­ence of run­ning for state chair?

Kim­ber­ly Ellis: Well, I think it under­scores the truth that change — big change — is hard, and it doesn’t come overnight. It’s hard-fought. And I think that this is just part of a big­ger move­ment — rev­o­lu­tion — to real­ly change how we do pol­i­tics in this coun­try. And it has also been one of the most reward­ing expe­ri­ences of my life, get­ting to trav­el all across the state and meet the incred­i­ble peo­ple who live in Cal­i­for­nia, who are the activists and the heart and soul of this par­ty. We want a par­ty that is root­ed in peo­ple, that is about jus­tice and fair­ness and equi­ty for every­body at every lev­el. So it’s a con­tin­u­um. This is part of a con­tin­u­um of move­ment for real change in our party.

Theo: On plat­form issues, in Cal­i­for­nia at least, the par­ty is pret­ty much on the same page about a $15 min­i­mum wage and sin­gle-pay­er health­care, things like that. But what’s being con­test­ed is the process. That’s true in Cal­i­for­nia but also in Mass­a­chu­setts recent­ly, which had a big bat­tle. The plat­form was very pro­gres­sive, but the party’s just not very transparent.

Kim­ber­ly: It’s easy to agree — in the­o­ry and in words — with a plat­form that is incred­i­bly pro­gres­sive. It’s anoth­er thing to actu­al­ly agree with a plat­form based on your votes. And I think that’s where we see the most dis­crep­an­cies and dis­con­nect. And it’s one of the rea­sons why I talked about want­i­ng to do away with auto­mat­ic endorse­ments of incum­bents. Incum­bents should be required to come and stand in front of endors­ing bod­ies. I want­ed to work with part­ner orga­ni­za­tions like the Courage Cam­paign, which puts out a report card that shows how our elect­ed Democ­rats vot­ed. And I thought that they should have to come in and stand on their record, and defend their record, and not be auto­mat­i­cal­ly endorsed.

One of the things I talked about was flat­ten­ing out the hier­ar­chy of the par­ty and shar­ing pow­er, as opposed to col­laps­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing pow­er into the hands of the few. We saw that those in pow­er are not as open to the idea of shar­ing pow­er and democ­ra­tiz­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This con­tin­ues to be a move­ment towards forc­ing pow­er, those who are in pow­er and those who wield pow­er, to share that pow­er in order to empow­er grass­roots activists.

Theo: Peo­ple can see how it’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary, on the plat­form side, to call for a $15 min­i­mum wage. It doesn’t seem that rev­o­lu­tion­ary, actu­al­ly, but in the U.S. con­text it is pret­ty rev­o­lu­tion­ary. But I think peo­ple have a hard­er time grasp­ing why it mat­ters that the lead­er­ship is demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed, and how that sort of fil­ters through the party.

Kim­ber­ly: One of the ques­tions I would get a lot on the cam­paign trail was the dif­fer­ence between me and my oppo­nent. So I talked a lot about, in terms of pol­i­cy, we actu­al­ly have a lot of the same posi­tions and stances. The dif­fer­ence real­ly was in terms of vision and how we would wield pow­er. And so I talked a lot about chang­ing the way the par­ty oper­at­ed and the way it did busi­ness. The way it’s cur­rent­ly struc­tured, the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty spends a lot of mon­ey on high­ly paid con­sul­tants, and on media ad-buys.

Theo: Your oppo­nent was a con­sul­tant, right? Or has a con­sult­ing firm?

Kim­ber­ly: A con­sult­ing busi­ness, yes. And so, I talked about shift­ing and deploy­ing those resources dif­fer­ent­ly. Instead of con­sul­tants, instead of spend­ing mon­ey on com­mer­cials and mail, I want­ed to invest that mon­ey in peo­ple and groom­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers. I want­ed to have a per­ma­nent, paid field team at the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that would orga­nize all across the state — not just a cou­ple months before the elec­tion, but 365 days a year — around issues that were impor­tant to us.

The chair of the par­ty gets dis­cre­tion in how a lot of that mon­ey is spent. And I want­ed to spend that mon­ey dif­fer­ent­ly, want­ed to invest that mon­ey in peo­ple. I want­ed to change the way they devel­op the mem­bers of the stand­ing com­mit­tees. So, under the cur­rent struc­ture the chair gets to appoint every sin­gle mem­ber, every sin­gle chair, every sin­gle co-chair of every sin­gle stand­ing com­mit­tee. I want­ed to change that up, I want­ed to democ­ra­tize that, so the chair would have a per­cent­age that she would appoint, and the rest would be open to the del­e­gates to vote, to the cau­cus­es to vote, to just shore it up — again, shar­ing that pow­er in dif­fer­ent ways.

And I want­ed to open up dif­fer­ent mem­ber­ship cat­e­gories. So, we talk a lot about being a par­ty that sup­ports young peo­ple and sup­ports mil­len­ni­als. I want­ed to add a new cat­e­go­ry of del­e­gates that was specif­i­cal­ly for 13- through 19-year-olds, that real­ly brought them in to the deci­sion-mak­ing table. The biggest dif­fer­ence was in how we viewed the par­ty mov­ing for­ward. I viewed it as a par­ty that didn’t just talk about our val­ues, but lived our val­ues in every­thing that we did. That we are mov­ing with an eye toward mak­ing sure that his­tor­i­cal­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed com­mu­ni­ties — peo­ple of col­or, women, mil­len­ni­als, native com­mu­ni­ties, LGBT com­mu­ni­ties — real­ly had a seat at the table.

Theo: Con­ser­v­a­tives look to Texas as their shin­ing star. And I think pro­gres­sives right now are look­ing to Cal­i­for­nia as a kind of a hope, because of its size and cul­tur­al influ­ence. Should we be hope­ful or despair­ing, or some­where in between, about what’s going on in California.

Kim­ber­ly: Yeah, I think we should be hope­ful. I’m ever the opti­mist. One of the things I talked about on the cam­paign trail is not being afraid to ruf­fle feath­ers and to make peo­ple uncom­fort­able. And that’s what’s going on, and it con­tin­ues to go on — even beyond this elec­tion. And that, I think, gives me hope that peo­ple are not back­ing down, that peo­ple are not afraid, that peo­ple are going to call for the truth. As long as we con­tin­ue to do that, I think Cal­i­for­nia will con­tin­ue to be the pro­gres­sive flag-bearer.

I would get push­back from elect­ed offi­cials who said that Cal­i­for­nia was the bea­con — that our leg­isla­tive cham­bers were Demo­c­ra­t­ic, that all of our con­sti­tu­tion­al offi­cers were Democ­rats, that our gov­er­nor was a Demo­c­rat. They asked me, What more work is there to be done?’ And I said, You know, that’s real­ly not the atti­tude that I want my Demo­c­ra­t­ic elect­ed offi­cials to have.” Because there are cer­tain­ly many areas that need to be improved. And we should always have the mantra that we don’t stop fight­ing until there is fair­ness and jus­tice and equi­ty for everyone.

Theo: What did your mot­to, unbought and unbossed,” mean to you? Why did you choose that?

Kim­ber­ly: I tell the sto­ry about how I first sort of caught the bug, if you will, and it was in third grade. I had to give a report, and I did it on Shirley Chisholm (an African-Amer­i­can U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Brook­lyn who ran for pres­i­dent in 1972). And learned about her and her life, and I grew up want­i­ng to be just like her.

The more we thought about the cam­paign and got into it, the more that real­ly res­onat­ed. The truth of the mat­ter is, there were a lot of deals and offers that were made along the way — even up to and after the con­ven­tion. And it real­ly just sort of reaf­firmed for me that stand­ing in truth and stand­ing for jus­tice and for what’s right isn’t always the eas­i­est thing to do, but for me it’s always the right thing to do. And so for me the unbought and unbossed” means that you are a truth-seek­er and a free­dom fight­er and a jus­tice war­rior, and you won’t stop until that is actu­al­ized for everybody.

Theo: Your expe­ri­ence in help­ing cul­ti­vate women for a greater role of pol­i­tics — what did you learn from it, and how did it inform your campaign?

Kim­ber­ly: I learned that even here in big, blue, pro­gres­sive Cal­i­for­nia, there’s still a lot of work to be done, there are still many more hur­dles for women to get over, and the play­ing field is not fair. You know, it got even hard­er when you start­ed adding lay­ers — women of col­or, moth­ers, LGBT women, sin­gle women. The more lay­ers you added on, the hard­er it was. And I think it just sort of taught me that fight­ing for women’s polit­i­cal equi­ty and women hav­ing a seat at the table was impor­tant work. It made me real­ly proud of the work that I accom­plished even in terms of get­ting more women, women of col­or, into the polit­i­cal bike lane.

Theo: Your base was a lot of Our Rev­o­lu­tion peo­ple — Bernie Sanders peo­ple. But I under­stand there was a lot of crossover. Hillary Clin­ton sup­port­ers sup­port­ed you as well.

Kim­ber­ly: Just a cou­ple of days ago, in an op-ed in one of the news­pa­pers in Cal­i­for­nia, it was paint­ed as Bernie ver­sus Hillary. I think one of the most beau­ti­ful things that came out of the cam­paign was the bring­ing togeth­er of those two uni­vers­es, to get behind a move­ment for a big­ger, bet­ter, bold­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Most peo­ple know that I was a Hillary sup­port­er myself, and so we were able to facil­i­tate those hard con­ver­sa­tions through­out the course of the cam­paign — of what is meant to see one anoth­er, to hear one anoth­er, and to come togeth­er to work for a greater good. And it also demon­strat­ed the true uni­ty that the par­ty con­tin­ues to call for. We demon­strat­ed that in this cam­paign, and that’s what I was hop­ing to bring to this party. 

Theo: And what brought in the Sanders peo­ple was your com­mit­ment to reform­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party?

Kim­ber­ly: Absolute­ly. And also, I was that per­son who was not afraid to call out the dis­crep­an­cies where our par­ty said one thing and did anoth­er, and to talk about the expe­ri­ences that they had dur­ing the pri­ma­ry, at the [Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee] con­ven­tion. I wasn’t afraid to call a foul on the play, and say that there was a thumb on a scale, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes things going on, and that’s not okay.

Theo: Do you know what you’ll do to con­tribute to the par­ty now?

Kim­ber­ly: You know, we sub­mit­ted our for­mal chal­lenge to the com­pli­ance review com­mis­sion, which is the com­mis­sion that will be rul­ing on our chal­lenge. We don’t have a lot of con­fi­dence that we will get a fair adju­di­ca­tion out of that body. All six of them who com­prise the body are sup­port­ers of my oppo­nent. They all vot­ed for my oppo­nent. And so, we def­i­nite­ly have some con­cerns about the per­son­al con­flicts of inter­est that are inher­ent in the make­up of that. That said, we have said that we are leav­ing all of our options on the table. We will not stop fight­ing for truth until all of our options are exhaust­ed. At this point, that’s what I’m focused on. And until we get to the end of the road, that’s what it looks like.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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