Does the Choice of Democratic Voters Matter to Party Insiders?

GUEST WORDS--Los Angeles County Democrats are heading into what many believe to be the most consequential national election of our lifetime. 

Common sense would suggest that now is the time for Democrats to close ranks and pull together, but not for the first time, a low-level factional dispute is drawing energy away from larger issues.  

The issue should be a fairly uncontroversial one:  Who will serve as Chair and Vice Chair of one Assembly District’s delegation to the Central Committee of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party (LACDP).  These choices are usually settled at an organizational meeting that occurs following the state’s primary election.  Most delegations choose their chair and vice chair without drama, but the choice in Assembly District 51 has deadlocked.  Two successive ballots at the organizational meeting produced a tie vote.  A second election on August 1 yielded an identical result.  What’s going in here?  Why should 28 Democratic activists, elected officials and staff members divide exactly equally over what appears at first to be a minor question?

The answer lies in the recent history of the District and the somewhat arcane by-laws of the LACDP.  The party is governed at the county level by a large Central Committee that meets monthly.  Each of the California State Assembly Districts that lies within Los Angeles County elects seven representatives to this Central Committee.  All registered Democrats in the county can vote for these representatives; their names appear on the ballot every four years in the Presidential primary election.  In 2020, the election took place on March 3, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person public life.

California Assembly District 51 (AD 51) runs from Silver Lake to the Pasadena boundary, from Eagle Rock to Chinatown and East Los Angeles, and includes Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, City Terrace and part of Boyle Heights.  Demographically, the district is more than 70 percent Latino; politically it is more than 60 percent Democratic, with only a little over nine percent of voters registered as Republicans.

Six of the seven Central Committee members elected in AD 51 on March 3 were members of East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), the largest Democratic club in the county.  Two of them, Rocio Rivas and Jessica Craven, were the top two vote-getters in the district, with 24,340 and 19,000 votes, respectively.   Fellow EAPD members suggested that the two of them, as the top vote-getters in the district, run for Chair and Vice Chair of the district’s delegation on the County Committee. 

Dr. Rocio Rivas is Research and Policy Deputy to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board member Jackie Goldberg.  A Berkeley graduate with a doctorate from the Teachers College of Columbia University, Dr. Rivas serves as Goldberg’s point person for schools in El Sereno, City Terrace, Highland Park, Cypress Park, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock.  Her research in comparative and international education has taken her to her native Mexico, across South America and as far afield as the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus.  She previously worked for the LAUSD conducting research and evaluation in traditional public schools and charter schools.  She lives in Highland Park and is the mother of a child who attends public school in the LAUSD.

Like Dr. Rivas, Jessica Craven is also the mother of a child in the LAUSD.  She is well-known in Northeast Los Angeles as an activist and political organizer with the NELA Climate Collective and Moms Demand Action (for Gun Sense in America).  She is the author of "Chop Wood, Carry Water," a daily actions e-mail published five days a week since November 2016.  She runs four phone banks a week, organizing volunteers to call for progressive candidates up and down the ballot, and runs a postcarding hub out of her house that has enabled over 400 volunteers to send over 30,000 postcards to voters in the South in partnership with the NAACP.  She has canvassed, phonebanked and fundraised for literally hundreds of progressive candidates, and trains others to do the same in the “Activism 101” workshop she presents to groups all over the country.

Both Dr. Rivas and Ms. Craven are ardent supporters of public education who believe in keeping public schools public.  Their fellow EAPD members who were elected to County Committee urged them to run for Chair and Vice Chair of their delegation.  But the elected members of the County Committee are not the only members of the Committee eligible to vote in such an election.  Democratic elected officials residing in the district are automatically granted membership in the Committee, ex-officio.  In this case they are U.S. Representative Jimmy Gomez, State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and State Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo.  Members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) residing in a given district are also members of County Committee.  So is a given district’s member of the Executive Board of the California Democratic Party (CDP), Eileen Hatrick, and so, in this case, is the Chair of the county party, Mark Gonzalez, who also resides in Assembly District 51.

Each member, whether elected or ex-officio, is also permitted to appoint an alternate, who may vote at regular committee meetings in their appointing member’s absence.  These alternate members are also permitted to vote in the delegation’s election of its Chair and Vice Chair.  In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I serve as an alternate member for Executive Board member Eileen Hatrick and have served as an elected member of the County Committee in the past.

When the members of the District 51 delegation met (by way of Zoom) on July 11, six of the seven elected members and their alternates, along with Ms. Hatrick and me, voted for Rocio Rivas and Jessica Craven as Chair and Vice Chair.  One elected member, the other ex-officio members and their alternates all voted for two other candidates: Seamus Garrity for Chair and Nilza Serrano for Vice Chair.  As it happens, that added up to 14 votes for each candidate, a tie vote.

Nilza Serrano is an entrepreneur, business consultant and fundraiser.  Seamus Garrity is best known to local Democrats as a Field Representative for Laura Friedman, the Assemblymember in District 43, centered in Glendale and Burbank.  Both Ms. Serrano and Mr. Garrity are alternate members of the County Committee who had unsuccessfully sought direct election to the body.  Serrano finished 16th in a field of 24; Garrity finished 23rd. 

Why a State Senator and a member of the State Assembly — much less a United States Congressman — should concern themselves with who chairs one district’s delegation to their party’s County Committee is somewhat puzzling.  The choice of a candidate who finished 23rd in a field of 24 to serve as the Chair of the delegation is downright mystifying.  To many members of EAPD, the gesture seemed better calculated to divide than unite the delegation.

Whatever the reason, through two meetings and four consecutive ballots, the elected officials, DNC members and their alternates remained steadfast in support of their candidates.  The matter will be referred to a third meeting, at a time yet to be determined.  If a third meeting produces no decision, the matter will be referred to the Policy Committee of the LACDP, to be decided by other officers of the Committee.

If you spend time in Democratic circles, you will often hear elected officials repeat that the party needs to recruit fresh activists and leaders from the communities they serve.  But too often, when energetic volunteers offer to serve on the party’s committees at the county and state level, they meet with resistance from established figures in the party.

Many activists in AD 51 encountered difficulties last year when they ran for positions as delegates to the state party.  That contest required a complete do-over after the exposure of irregularities in the election and the elected representatives only secured their seats after fending off further interference in a contentious session at the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco.  In the current case, blocking the path to leadership of two activists who earned their seats by winning the most votes of anyone on the ballot is especially regrettable.

In a tie vote, every decision of the meeting chair — and every voter’s credential — comes under scrutiny.  A loophole in the party’s By-Laws allows members of the DNC to appoint their alternates from outside the district.  Although technically permissible, the practice contributes to the appearance of a process controlled by officeholders, to the detriment of elected Committee members. Personal animosities and a desire to win small fights at any cost can too easily arise in these situations, which is unfortunate. 

Our party, at the state and local level has suffered two grievous embarrassments over the last two years: one when the Chair of the State Party, a former Chair of the LACDP, was forced to resign amid charges of the grossest misconduct, and another when the Los Angeles City Council member who represented much of AD 51 at City Hall was indicted for felony malfeasance in office. In both cases, greater transparency and openness in the party’s processes might have denied these men our support earlier in their careers and spared area Democrats from any share in their disgrace.

When the President of the United States and his enablers daily demonstrate their indifference to every principle of law, ethics or common decency, we Democrats should be confident that our processes can withstand public scrutiny, and that we are happy to practice complete transparency in our operations.

I hope that the County Chair and our elected representatives in Sacramento and Washington will reconsider where their interests lie in this very local matter.  A party that encourages and accepts the full participation of its citizen activists is a stronger party than one that reflexively resists newcomers or limits even ceremonial offices to a closed circle of insiders.

Rocio Rivas and Jessica Craven are outstanding activists, models of civic engagement and public citizenship.  Their goal is to strengthen the Democratic Party and advance a humane agenda of health care for all, support for the most vulnerable in our society, respect for immigrants, and full equality under the law for all people.  They will defend our public schools and help build an inclusive party, open to all, one whose processes are beyond reproach.

(Hugh Esten is a writer and editor in Highland Park.  He has previously served as an elected member of the Central Committees of the Los Angeles County and California Democratic Party.)