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California Democrats have unprecedented power. Why is the party so uneasy?

Whoever becomes the next party chair will have to navigate political crosscurrents while helping to heal from the fallout of Bauman’s departure last year in a sexual misconduct scandal. | AP Photo

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Democratic Party has never been this powerful — and its incumbents are feeling the heat.

The party rides into the 2020 election with Democrats in every statewide office, while California Republicans — who once gave the country Ronald Reagan — have been reduced to an afterthought in the Legislature and diminished to just seven slots in a 53-member House delegation.

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Yet Democrats’ rising fortunes have flowed in part from an energized activist base that, even as it buoys candidates, is channeling an anti-establishment wave roiling the national Democratic party as rank-and-file members clamor to elect not just Democrats but the right Democrats.

The outcome in this liberal West Coast stronghold could demonstrate to the national Democratic Party what happens when a base galvanized by Donald Trump pushes candidates and elected officials to embrace an unapologetically progressive agenda.

Moreover, Democratic presidential candidates are jostling over the deep vein of delegates at play in California’s wide-open primary, and 14 of them will be here on Friday for the California Democratic Party convention.

While they jockey for political support in a state that suddenly matters in 2020 after moving up its primary, activists will battle longtime delegates over the future at the California party.

“I think there’s a very vocal new contingent of delegates and activists and they simply reject the old way of doing things,” said John Vigna, who was a close lieutenant to ousted chair Eric Bauman. “A lot of the folks, particularly the ones who came in with Bernie Sanders, have a natural distrust of the establishment — any establishment, whether it’s Sacramento or D.C., [and] most of that distrust is the feeling that elected officials are not advancing the platform with the forcefulness or effectiveness they would like.”

Whoever becomes the next party chair this weekend will have to navigate those political crosscurrents while helping to heal from the fallout of Bauman’s departure last year in a sexual misconduct scandal. The activists have momentum, asserting that the top-down culture that fed Bauman’s rise also enabled years of abuse.

After narrowly losing to Bauman in an acrimonious 2017 contest, Kimberly Ellis is taking another shot, having launched an organization to cultivate a new generation of progressive candidates after her defeat.

In an interview with POLITICO, she heralded a rising cohort of “revolutionaries who are not necessarily concerned with getting re-elected but with doing what they can while they’re there.” She warned that the party risks becoming irrelevant for vital blocs of the electorate — millennials, single women and people of color.

“We need to work with the Indivisibles and the Our Revolutions because they’re already here now. In many respects those programs started because there was a void and the party wasn’t doing its job in some of these places,” she said.

Those groups tend to fall farther on the left of the spectrum. They are also in the vanguard of a fundamental trend in California politics: The erosion of party affiliation, with evermore people registering as no-party-preference rather than declaring themselves Democrats or Republicans.

“The vast majority of those people who are in that no-party-preference category are the very demographic that this party must bring in to the fold if we have any hope of being relevant in the future,” Ellis said, warning “there will be trouble ahead,” including “a very real possibility of a third party.”

A surge of activism is playing out in traditionally obscure local party elections that place party members on committees responsible for making endorsements, which directly determine which candidates the party spends money on. Such Assembly District Delegate elections — often called “ADems” — used to be low-turnout affairs attended by a small universe of politically-connected players, but now attract a bloom of grassroots Democrats.

“Ten years ago you couldn’t find 20 people to show up to an ADem election, but I think people see that there’s something wrong and they’re not exactly sure what it is so they’re getting involved,” said Bill Wong, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s chief political consultant.

After an upwelling of enthusiasm attributed largely to Bernie Sanders acolytes brought a wave of new delegates into local slates in 2017, the landscape has shifted again after 2019 elections: Of the 80 Assembly slates, only a handful have retained at least half of their 2017 makeup.

Party insiders are trading information on where progressives prevailed and where more traditional, candidate-aligned slates took hold. Some are feeling discouraged.

“A lot of progressives say 2017 was A New Hope, 2019 was The Empire Strikes Back,” said RL Miller, a longtime party activist.

California Democrats point to multiple instances in the last few years where a restive base has clashed with elected officials. Democratic dominance, combined with a primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party, has meant more Democrat-on-Democrat contests.

Last year, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County voted to remove three local elected officials for endorsing the incumbent district attorney, who was a registered Republican when she ran for reelection. The move was assailed by some Democrats as a counterintuitive purity test.

“I thought that was a bad decision, and those members who are my colleagues are great Democrats,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who as a state senator was head of the Democratic caucus. “If we’re going to have strict litmus tests on many things, then I think we are doing ourselves a disservice.”

Few issues have exposed fissures more than the pursuit of single-payer health care, a progressive dream that is now embraced by presidential candidates and a new wave of House members. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon faced fierce backlash when he shelved a single-payer bill last year, and a state senator who had voted against the measure was briefly threatened with an election challenge.

For Democrats who work for elected officials, the single-payer fracture in particular has crystallized a more treacherous landscape in which activists have policies “established as litmus tests to criticize the Legislature,” Wong said, without concern for “whether or not that’s doable.”

Mounting pressure from the party’s political arm is making legislators more nervous about the consequences of taking the wrong position, a senior legislative staffer told POLITICO.

“AOC took out an incumbent,” the staffer said, referring to freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I don’t think this is something that’s unique to California. You’re seeing this movement across the country, especially in the safer Democratic districts.”

“It’s a tough time to be a legislator,” the staffer added, “because you have this pull toward the left with a much more vocal and engaged party, but then you also have this counterbalance of the fear of what happens when you take a vote that could be messaged very simply and cause outrage among voters.”

Those tensions erupted last year after legislative leadership introduced a measure that would have allowed them to control new campaign committees — effectively circumventing a system in which party endorsements determine where party money can be spent.

The bill was defeated after a backlash among activists, but Daraka Larimore-Hall — a longtime party official also running for chair — said that type of power play is a central justification for his campaign to be chair, calling the measure “a perfect example of some folks in the legislative leadership or staff just thinking that this whole small-d democratic process is a pain in the butt, and wouldn’t it be easier if the experts just picked the candidates and directed the big money to support them.”

“I really think a lot of people in the party underestimate how existential this question is,” Larimore-Hall said. “The party and legislative leaders and their caucuses have overlapping but distinct goals: their goal is to protect incumbents no matter what, ours is to evaluate candidates and electeds and support those who get the majority out of their activists behind them. Nine times out of 10 that’s the same thing, but that one time is really important for having a democratic process.”

Los Angeles County Labor Federation president Rusty Hicks, who is also running for party chair, said in an interview with POLITICO that his time in organized labor has included vetting candidates to see if they had “strayed from the values we thought we were on the same page with” and, in some cases, opposing those who had.

His history demonstrates one source of tension within the party’s base: conflict between environmentalists who advocate far-reaching climate change policies and unions worried about job losses. Party activists note that Hicks, in his capacity as a union official, last year signed a letter opposing a proposed regulation to ban modified hydrofluoric acid on the grounds it could eliminate thousands of jobs.

People underscored that intraparty tensions are cyclical: Just as pro-Sanders and anti-Trump sentiment have brought in a new wave of progressives, so too did Barack Obama’s insurgent bid and Howard Dean’s before that.

While it’s not a new phenomenon, Andrew Acosta, a Democratic campaign consultant, pointed to diminished deference to incumbency, with people no longer in “awe of the assemblyman or the congressman.”

“This last election cycle I had people contacting me out of the blue,” Acosta said, “and they would say, ‘I want to run against congressman so-and-so or assemblyman so-and-so’ and I would say, ‘Why?’ And they would say, ‘Why not?'”

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