'Old school versus new school:' The battle over who will run the California Democratic Party

A pivotal election is underway in California that could push this Democratic stronghold even further left and recalibrate the direction of arguably the most influential state political party in the nation.

Staunchly liberal and pro-union, the top two contenders for chair of the California Democratic Party offer a sharp contrast in style and strategy. Eric Bauman is a bullish, Bronx-born union organizer and the consummate party insider. Democratic organizer Kimberly Ellis is a provocative Bay Area progressive, embraced as the outsider by a wave of Bernie Sanders supporters leading an insurgency against the party establishment.

The race — and last year’s divisive Democratic presidential primary — have created a rift among the delegates who will choose a new chair as the state leans into its emerging role as the epicenter of liberal resistance to the nascent Trump administration.

Initially, Bauman’s bid for the post possessed an air of inevitability, fed by endorsements from most of California’s top Democrats and the political allegiances he’s forged since becoming Los Angeles County party chair in 2000 and a state party vice chair in 2009. But controversy surrounding Bauman’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, in part, opened the door for Ellis.

Ellis is the former director of a nonprofit devoted to electing more women to office, and she would be the first woman of color to lead the state party. She has accused California’s top Democrats of being so beholden to special interests and corporate donors that they’ve lost sight of their liberal ideals — echoing Sanders’ populist bid for president.

“This is not an infomercial with a predetermined outcome,” said Christine Pelosi of San Francisco, chair of the party’s powerful Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “It’s hot because [of] new people, it’s hot because of Donald Trump, it’s hot because when you’re out of power, the political party means more. California is the... cash ATM of presidential politics and every presidential candidate will pass through the new chair’s office. It’s, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD.”

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