Last weekend, the nearly 3,000 delegates to California’s state Democratic Party convention chose their new party leadership. John Burton, the legendarily foul-mouthed, fiercely progressive, larger-than-life figure who has, both in the legislature and as party chair, put his stamp on the state Democratic apparatus for close to half a century, was finally stepping down. Eric Bauman—a party insider from Los Angeles, a one-time trauma-center nurse, gay, connected, with a dramatic persona and a powerful baritone voice—and Kimberly Ellis, an insurgent, Bernie Sanders–inspired African-American activist who had traveled the state with a take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises message, were vying to fill his rather oversized boots.
Ellis’s supporters, many of them nurses brought in by the increasingly assertive California Nurses Association (CNA), were the more vocal. They flooded Hall A, in the Sacramento convention center, wearing pink “Unbought, Unbossed, Kimberly Ellis” T-shirts, waving her placards, and standing to chant her name again and again as the time neared for her speech late Saturday afternoon.
“This race is not about me, it’s about the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” Ellis told the audience. “We are the party of the poor, the working class, the voiceless. We believe in reaching back and pulling up the forgotten. We don’t stop until there is fairness and justice and equity for everybody.” Ellis’s “Berniecrats,” as they now call themselves, were enthused. “Make no mistake about it, California,” she continued, “all eyes are on us.”
It was a powerful speech, but in the end it wasn’t quite enough. Ellis—who had turned what was long thought to be a shoo-in for Bauman, the longtime chair of the LA County party, into a competitive race—lost by a whisker. When the votes were tabulated late Saturday night, as the delegates were making the rounds of the various parties dotted around the Capitol building, Bauman came in with 1,493, Ellis with 1,431. Ellis refused to concede, though, claiming—without showing proof—that there were irregularities in the voting process. As of this writing, Bauman is the incoming chair, yet it is still possible that lawyers will be brought in by Ellis to challenge the result.
In many ways, however, the outcome of the vote for party chair was less important than the underlying message of the convention. Whether Ellis won or lost, the California Democratic Party has, since the general election, been moving rapidly leftward, has been “Bernifying” itself—and, because Democrats have a supermajority in the state legislature, in all likelihood that portends a huge progressive push for big-picture social reforms over the coming years. Policies that even a year ago were considered wildly utopian are now—as the federal government veers dangerously rightward—mainstream in this state.
All of the leading contenders to replace Governor Brown when his terms ends in 2018 are now on record as favoring a move toward universal, or single-payer, health care in the state. In fact, support for SB 562, the single-payer bill currently being pushed by State Senators Ricardo Lara and Toni Atkins and ardently supported by Ellis and the CNA, is now becoming something of a litmus test among the grassroots for Democratic politicians. The party’s Assembly and Senate leaders are pushing some of the world’s most assertive environmental and clean-energy policies—and are increasingly looked to by people around the world as the last, best hope to keep the United States on track to meet the commitments agreed to by Barack Obama at the December 2015 climate summit in Paris. Big-city Democratic mayors are solidly in favor of defending their sanctuary-city policies, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra is busy putting up as many legal challenges as he can to Trump’s political priorities.