‘Berniecrats’ roil state Democratic Party leadership fight
For California’s “Berniecrats,” the fire’s not out yet.
Nearly a year after propelling Sen. Bernie Sanders to a close second finish against Hillary Clinton in California’s presidential primary, some of his most ardent supporters are still organizing – this time within the state Democratic Party itself.
At stake is the party chairmanship held by the departing John Burton, a liberal icon, a longtime lawmaker and former Senate leader who became chair in 2009.
They surprised insiders by dominating the obscure process — electing a third of the delegates for the state convention, scheduled for May 19-21 in Sacramento.
Vying to replace Burton are L.A. County Democratic Party leader Eric Bauman, currently the state party’s vice chair and a major power in California labor politics. Facing him is activist Kimberly Ellis, the director of Emerge California, which seeks to have more women and people of color elected to public office.
Rather than fading into the sunset with their defeated standard-bearer, Sanders’ activists emerged from November both irked and emboldened.
They have joined forces with other some other progressives to support Ellis and take over the party’s leadership, promote a more left-leaning policy agenda and diminish the clout of corporations and business-friendly moderates.
“We’re hoping to get Kimberly Ellis elected, that’s probably the primary goal, but the other is to get Bernie people involved in local government,” said Alexis Edelstein, founder and CEO of the 300-member Berniecrats of California.
They surprised insiders by dominating the obscure process — electing a third of the delegates for the state convention, scheduled for May 19-21 in Sacramento. They believe they have turned the once-sleepy race for a new party chair into a serious contest with Bauman, long viewed as the front-runner.
“We see our biggest opportunity as the party,” Edelstein said. “We want to make a concerted effort. If we can change California, we can change the rest of the country.”
“They do understand that while this may be mind-numbing and uninteresting to most people, this is the thing you need to do to effect change.” — Fred Keeley
It’s not unusual for dedicated supporters to emerge from a defeat determined to fight on. What is unusual is for that sentiment to last much past Election Day.
“By about Wednesday or Thursday, that stuff usually disappears,” said former Assemblymember Fred Keeley, who represented Santa Cruz County – a hotbed of Sanders’ support. “That’s the interesting piece of this. We’ve had weeks of activity, and they’re the beating heart of all of it.”
Keeley said the continued organizing and activism by Sanders backers is rooted in their long-term agenda.
“The organization has continued on because it wasn’t a personality cult or anything close to it,” he said. “These folks by and large are relatively sophisticated players. They do understand that while this may be mind-numbing and uninteresting to most people, this is the thing you need to do to effect change.”
Once the dust settled from November, California’s Berniecrats focused on the weekend party meetings held in January to elect state party delegates from each Assembly district. They partnered with other progressives to build slates of candidates and then used Hustle – a texting application used extensively in the Sanders campaign – to turn supporters out.
“I’ve been a single-payer healthcare advocate for 30 years. When they engage with me, when they talk with me, the conversation changes.” — Eric Bauman
The effort brought surprising crowds to the usually sparsely attended meetings at union halls and recreation centers scattered across the state.
“In some places, the voter turnout quadrupled,” Edelstein said. “We managed to get about 60 percent of the seats. It was a huge win.”
Both Ellis and Bauman were Clinton supporters. But some Berniecrats came out against Bauman after a consulting firm in which he is a partner received $78,000 from the pharmaceutical industry-sponsored committee opposed to Proposition 61, which Sanders supported, as did the California Nurses Association.
Bauman said others in his firm did the work opposing the measure, which ended long before Proposition 61 was defeated. While campaigning for state chair, Bauman, a nurse, said he’s had to explain to Sanders supporters his own record supporting universal health care.
“I’ve been a single-payer healthcare advocate for 30 years,” Bauman said. “When they engage with me, when they talk with me, the conversation changes.”
Berniecrats also see their mission within the party is to drive riving out the influence of corporations.
“We have to get away from the corporate money. The corporate money is the one percent,” said Norma Alcala, a Sanders delegate to last year’s national convention who’s now running for vice chair of the state party. “We want to get back to what the party stood for.”
“These events generally occur after we have a big loss. It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of political parties – just as the Tea Party was a reaction to Obama.” — David Townsend
Alcala said she’s tired of seeing candidates elected as Democrats in the Assembly and state Senate vote against progressive legislation.
“You may have a Democrat who’s not a true Democrat. Someone has to have a backbone,” she said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to reactivate the party, re-energize it and redefine it for the 21st Century.”
For all their high-minded principles and progressive policy goals, many Berniecrats also express lingering resentment over how they – and their candidate – were treated during last year’s campaign.
“I have a real problem with annointings,” Acala said. “The party never gave Bernie a chance. It was an uphill battle.”
Keeley said addressing those concerns should be a priority for Democrats if they want to build a winning coalition four years from now.
“I don’t have some horrible feeling about the party, but I do think it is essential –not important — I think it is absolutely essential if we are going to do something in 2020 that we recognize the most egregious sin on the part of Democrats in 2016 was the party apparatus putting its thumb on the scale in the primary,” he said.
David Townsend, though a longtime consultant to moderate Democrats in the Legislature, sees no cause for concern the spike in progressive activism among Sanders supporters.
And despite the success Berniecrats enjoyed in January, it’s not clear how much sway they will hold over the other two-thirds of state convention delegates.
“These events generally occur after we have a big loss,” Townsend said. “It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of political parties – just as the Tea Party was a reaction to Obama. It’s a natural part of what happens in a political party when you lose.”
Townsend said it’s healthy for the party to debate big ideas and to generate renewed enthusiasm among activists. But he doesn’t see the Berniecrats having much success at the ballot box in California, where the top two primary finishers move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
“What are they going to do? They’re not going to win legislative seats,” Townsend said. “With a top-two runoff, the far left won’t win any more than the far right.”
Nor does Townsend put much stock in the Berniecrats’ drive to reject corporate support.
“If you want to choose as a candidate to take no corporate money, then you’ll be a very short-term candidate,” he said.
And despite the success Berniecrats enjoyed in January, it’s not clear how much sway they will hold over the other two-thirds of state convention delegates, which will be made up of county central committee members and delegates appointed by state office holders.
“This is all part of the churn of ideas,” Townsend said. “We have to go through the process of self-immolation before we get back to reality.”