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

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.

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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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