By Cody Petterson
Rusty Hicks won the 2019 California Democratic Party (CDP) Chair’s race fair and square, by a substantial margin. He deserves congratulations for his achievement. I wish him luck and will support his work (so long as he doesn’t defer to the CA State Building Trades’ recent hard turn against the Green New Deal and the rapid phase out of fossil fuels in California).
I would leave it at that, but I read several articles that demonstrated profound ignorance of the nature of CDP officer elections and what they tell us about the prevailing values and priorities within the Party, and I feel compelled to set the record straight
First, CDP officer elections are not plebiscites. While delegate voting is technically free, with individual delegates casting votes of personal preference and conscience, the actual constitution of the delegate pool structures the vote in important ways. The delegate pool is split into three roughly equal pools, Central Committee delegates, Assembly District delegates (ADEMs), and Party Leader and Elected Official (PLEO) delegates. The first two are generally individual voters, although organizers, candidates, and elected officials can put together ADEM slates that allow them to exert influence over individual votes. The final category, PLEOs, however, is constituted by state, federal, and party officials and their appointees. Assembly and Congressional electeds get five appointees plus themselves, while Constitutional Officers, State Senators, and Senators get six plus themselves. This alone makes the PLEO vote much more structured than the other two pools. Furthermore, the State Senate Pro Tem, the Assembly Speaker, and the Leader of the State Democratic House Delegation each get an additional 30 appointees.
But these facts alone don’t explain how structured the vote really is. The Pro Tem and the Speaker both wield awesome power in their respective chambers—legislative power and power over the futures of their caucus members. Very few state legislators are willing to jeopardize their careers to cast a rogue vote in a CDP officer election. If the Pro Tem or Speaker, therefore, decides to take an active role in an election, they’re overwhelmingly likely to compel obedience. And electeds, in turn, are very likely to instruct their appointees to vote accordingly. Now, there’s nothing formally compelling about such instruction, but most appointees aren’t eager to be stripped of their delegate status and to potentially jeopardize their own political aspirations, in order to cast a vote of conscience in a party officer election. As a result, the PLEO pool typically moves in three large blocks, Congress, State Senate, and Assembly. Practically speaking, however, the PLEOs have the same basic interest, and if the Legislature gets involved, the whole pool votes more or less in unison, unless there’s some extraordinary reason for the houses to be opposed.
This structural tendency for the PLEO pool to have a high degree of consensus has significant consequences for the outcome of officer elections, similar to the way that huge margins in the southern states in 2016 proved insurmountable for Bernie Sanders in spite of respectable wins in the north and west. Let’s, for example, take a hypothetical spread, which I think is probably close to the one that would have prevailed in a two-way vote on Saturday (I’d guess that Daraka Larimore-Hall’s votes would have gone 60/40 to Kimberly Ellis if it had gone to a second round): given that both the State Senate and the Assembly came in solidly for Rusty—members and appointees were put under substantial pressure from leadership—with the House tagging along, I would guess the PLEO third of the delegates probably delivered 85-90% for Rusty. Let’s go with 90% for ease of illustration. That’s an 80 point spread. In order to overcome that advantage, both the Central Committee and ADEM pools would have had to go 60% for Kimberly. That’s a huge lift in a party as ideologically and regionally diverse as ours. In the event, if we take the 3-way race results (57-36-6) and convert them to a hypothetical 2-way RH-KE race (60-40), you get an idea of what probably happened: a vast Rusty PLEO advantage (say, 90%/10%) which modest Kimberly leads in the Central Committee (maybe 54%/46%) and ADEMS (maybe 56%/44%) didn’t come close to overcoming.
And this is assuming the pools, nominally equal, remained equal at the point of polling, which is unlikely, since Central Committee delegate proxies (who can vote in a delegate’s stead in the event of their absence) must come from that delegate’s own Central Committee, a relatively small pool, and ADEM proxies must reside in a delegate’s Assembly District, and both must therefore come long distances at substantial expense, planned well in advance, whereas PLEO proxies can come from anywhere in the state and can therefore literally be pulled from the sidewalk outside the venue—a simple task when many locals are ignorant of the party dynamics and eager to check out the hullabaloo inside the convention—which means that virtually no PLEO delegate vote goes uncast, whereas many CC and ADEM votes do.
You can see therefore that unless a candidate can secure the support of the Speaker and Pro Tem, or at least split them down the middle, it’s very difficult to triumph in a Chair’s race. I know what you may be thinking: “That’s not fair, the rules are stacked in favor of the Legislature.” Which is at least half true. The rules are definitely stacked in favor of PLEOs. The question of fairness, however, is more complex, and requires us to reflect on what the Party is.
The Party is many things to many people. It lives off the enthusiasm of activists, canvassers, phone-bankers, volunteers, the brand loyalty of voters, the risks and sacrifices and ambitions and machinations of candidates. But technically, fiscally, the Party is a legally mandated means of exceeding and circumventing campaign finance limitations. I don’t say this as an accusation. There is nothing surreptitious or nefarious about this. The law provides Democrats and Republicans alike the opportunity to channel donations that exceed individual and corporate campaign finance limits through their parties to endorsed candidates, as well as to obscure the relationship between a donor and the ultimate recipient.
The bulk of the funds passing through the Party come from legislators raising money into it. I haven’t checked the recent stats, but probably around $70 million passed though the Party last cycle, virtually all of it from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals.
You can see, therefore, that the Legislature has a deeply vested interest in ensuring that the funds they’re raising into the Party are distributed back out to their campaigns with minimal interference. And that the Party, in turn, has a deeply vested interest in making sure that the Legislature continues to raise money into it, since the fees they charge for the service of passing money through are what keeps the lights on. In fact, fear of Kimberly Ellis winning in 2017—with her support for publicly financed elections, opposition to donations from certain industries, and perceived lack of deference for incumbents—was precisely what led the Speaker’s office to draft AB 84, which would have effectively severed the Legislature’s dependence on the Party for overcoming campaign finance limitations. And, not incidentally, precisely why the Legislature looked askance at Kimberly this time around as well.
Kimberly, of course, was perfectly aware of this, and spent the first several months of her campaign this cycle working to woo both the Legislature and Labor. Unfortunately for her, the Assembly and Senate leadership both felt more confident that Rusty wouldn’t disrupt their fundraising operations, and with Rusty hailing from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, her path to Labor was similarly blocked. The only path left to her was thus to win huge margins in the Central Committee and ADEM pools, which is very difficult.
What does this say, and what doesn’t it say, about the current state of the Party? The Party, even the so-called ‘establishment,’ has moved somewhat to the left ideologically. I haven’t heard anyone call Rusty a moderate. Labor in LA is a machine, but it’s pretty good on social and economic issues. There are legitimate environmental concerns, given that Rusty has had to protect the oil and gas industry in Los Angeles, and that the State Building Trades have recently turned hard against the Green New Deal, the fracking ban, and the phase out of oil and gas more generally. Rusty will pass through the corporate money that legislators raise into the Party, which, in his defense, is the job description. He’ll raise a ton of Labor money into the Party. He’ll drop the hammer on primary challengers. But I think he’ll generally stay out of open primaries, and I suspect he’ll be good on a lot of bread and butter progressive issues.
The outcome, more than anything, is a confirmation of the fact, which those directly involved already recognized, that the Legislature—which is generally more favorable to the corporations that fund its campaigns—has reversed some of the gains made in 2017 by Bernie progressives in the Party. There’s a sort of paradoxical outcome of the last 3 years, in which progressives were initially able to narrow their delegate disadvantage within the Party, then moved the whole of the Party left on ideology and platform, then promptly lost some of their delegate gains. My guess would be that genuine progressives in the delegation have declined from maybe 44% in 2017 to 38% today.
With regard to the issues of race and gender that haunted this contest, the implications, to me, are pretty clear. First off, Anthony Rendon didn’t recruit Rusty, as I’ve heard some claim. Rusty recruited himself. I’m sure the shot-callers in Labor and the Legislature would have preferred a woman of color, both because they have some degree of genuine ideological commitment to diversity and because it would’ve made for better optics. I just think they ultimately don’t care that much one way or another. They’re concerned about their bottom line. If they could have chosen between a woman of color who didn’t threaten their cash flow and a white dude who didn’t threaten their cash flow, I believe they would have gone with the woman of color. But no combination of gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, poverty, or disability could have outweighed their concern for their bottom line. Sorry, I just don’t think that’s the kind of people or institution we’re dealing with.
Let me say, in closing, that I give credit to Kimberly, Daraka, and Rusty. There were some hits along the way, and everyone sustained some injuries, but all three maintained themselves with the composure and sound judgment we expect of Democratic leaders. Daraka and Kimberly, in particular, were under enormous strain, with the Legislature and most of Labor against them. This must have been particularly galling for Daraka, who has spent a lifetime dedicated to organizing and advocating on behalf of organized labor, and was an early supporter of Senator Sanders, and watched Labor and Progressives gravitate to relative newcomers to the cause. It gave me no pleasure to ultimately fall on the opposite side of him in the race, and I’m happy to be done with it.
Finally, a note to Kimberly Ellis: I’m proud to have walked this path with you over the last three years. I’m proud of the challenges you have confronted and overcome, and of your determination to make of yourself the warrior–the leader–that the struggle demanded. I always told you I didn’t understand why you wanted to be chair anyways. Figure out what’s next, and I’ll back your play. Peace out.
Dr. Cody Petterson is President of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He currently serves on the Boards of the San Diego River Conservancy and the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego. He lives with his wife and two children in his hometown of La Jolla, California, where he sits on the local Town Council and enjoys his passion for native habitat conservation and restoration.