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    California’s Own House of Cards

    Zoe Dunning

    By Zoe Dunning

    House of Cards Season 5 is out on Netflix. I’m only half way through the season, so no spoiler alerts, please. The primary story line so far is a contested Presidential election, where there is little constitutional guidance, causing impatience and frustration from both campaigns that are eager for resolution. The result is lots of posturing and dirty tricks, with many characters pulling out all stops in an effort to influence the final outcome.

    Here in California we have our own House of Cards drama taking place within the state Democratic Party: a close election followed by accusations of voter mischief, calls for an independent election audit, and a “losing” candidate refusing to concede.

    The two candidates to succeed legendary John Burton as Chair of the California Democratic Party are Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis. Eric Bauman is the current Chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and served for years as the Vice Chair of the state party. He is a former nurse, a long-time state party operative, and an out gay, Jewish man. During my time serving on the executive committees of the CA Democratic Party LGBT Caucus and the Veterans Caucus, Eric was a huge advocate and supporter. I have tremendous respect for him and his accomplishments.

    Kimberly is a grassroots organizer who most recently served as the Executive Director of Emerge CA, an organization dedicated to training Democratic women to run for office. An African American woman living in Richmond, CA, Kimberly made a concerted effort to recruit a diverse cross section of women to take part in the program. Over 50% of its graduates are women of color, and over 70% of the program’s graduates who run for elected office win.

    In full transparency, I was one of Kimberly’s earliest supporters when she decided to run for party Chair. No one thought she had a chance, yet a group of us gathered in an Oakland backyard two years ago and strategized how we could get her elected. Eric Bauman was the prohibitive favorite at the time.

    The election for statewide party offices, including the Chairmanship, takes place every four years at the annual CA Democratic Party Convention. This year it took place on May 20 in Sacramento. Those who get to vote are “delegates”—members of the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC). There are generally three ways to become a delegate: be a member of your county central committee (as I was from 2012–2016), get elected as an Assembly Delegate (ADEM), or get an appointment from an elected official (I am currently a Leader Pelosi delegate).

    I’ve written about the ADEM elections before, but they are a critical element of representing the grass roots in the state party’s work. Any registered Democrat living in that Assembly district can vote, and the number of ADEMs elected depends on the party registration in that district. The elections, which take place every two years, used to be sleepy little insider-only gatherings, usually on a weekend morning in some union hall or community center. Recently, however, they have received renewed emphasis. In this past January’s ADEM elections, the Bernie Sanders progressive coalition made a concerted effort to run candidates and get out the vote. Thousands and thousands showed up, and the results across the state showed a decided shift left in the leanings of the ADEM delegates chosen. This will become meaningful when we discuss the race for party Chair.

    Each candidate—Kimberly and Eric—began forming their own coalitions. Eric is very strong in Southern California, strong with the LGBT community, and has reasonably progressive street cred. However, he was successfully painted as a party “insider”—he works as a lobbyist, he solicits a lot of corporate donations for the party, and he had been in party leadership roles for years (including the leadership of the state’s largest Democratic County Central Committee, Los Angeles). Kimberly ran very strong with women, Bernie progressives, Northern California delegates, and communities of color. Both touted endorsements from respected leaders in the party and elected officials.

    As the state convention approached, people could smell upset in the air. The unthinkable was becoming possible, as Kimberly’s campaign picked up momentum. A huge part of that came from the progressive Bernie-affiliated ADEM delegates elected this past January. Conventional wisdom gave the nod to Eric, but it seemed Kimberly would make it a competitive race.

    When I arrived at the convention that Saturday, I immediately felt the energy in the air. Many people were wearing Kimberly’s bright pink t-shirt with “Unbought and Unbossed” emblazoned across it—also the title of Shirley Chisholm’s autobiography.

    When the voting took place, nearly 3,000 delegates cast their ballots. Late that evening, after some internet rumors that Kimberly pulled off the upset, the official results were announced. Kimberly received 1,431 votes, Eric garnered 1,493. Eric Bauman won by a mere 62 votes—closer than anyone expected, but enough to seal the victory.

    Or was it?

    The Ellis campaign immediately called for a review of the ballots and the counts because it was believed that there may have been inaccuracies, or ineligible votes taking place. Eric Bauman assumed the Chairmanship, based on the election results. This meant all of the Ellis campaign requests for reviews and opportunities to look at the paperwork and audit trail had to be submitted to Eric, her rival. Some were granted, others were not.

    Here we are, several weeks later, and Kimberly Ellis has not conceded. A statement released by her campaign claimed that it has uncovered “alarming discrepancies and an amassing of ineligible voters” during her campaign’s ongoing review of the ballots cast. She has called for an independent audit, which has been denied—by Eric Bauman. She has also lodged a separate formal challenge to the results. The disagreement has become very public, as both camps issue press releases lobbing accusations and personal attacks back and forth.

    The party’s refusal to review the process and legitimacy of every ballot has enraged many of her supporters, particularly the Bernie contingent, and caused a greater rift within the state party. This is reminiscent of the close election of Tom Perez over progressive Keith Ellison for chair of the DNC at the national level, leaving frustrated progressives feeling like their seat at the table has continued to get pulled out from under them by the party establishment.

    Just like a good House of Cards episode, we’ll wait to see what new twists and turns the story will take. Many have called for “party unity” (mostly Eric Bauman supporters). Others wonder—why not have a full audit to give everyone confidence in the results? Many have called for Kimberly to concede, including a Sacramento Bee OpEd titled “Give it up, Kimberly Ellis. You won’t be leading California Democrats.”

    But as long as Kimberly and her team see evidence of uncredentialed delegates casting votes, or incomplete ballots, they will continue to challenge the process and the results. My bet is we won’t see any resolution soon, until Kimberly has exhausted all means of protest. Will it make the state party divided and weak? Or will it bring to light gaps and deficiencies in the party’s delegate validation and voting integrity processes? The answer will become more evident in the months to come.

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and as an elected Delegate for the Democratic National Convention. She is a San Francisco Library Commissioner and is the former First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.