Silicon Valley Democratic Club endorses Kimberly Ellis for state party chair
Five candidates vying to chair the California Democratic Party answered questions at a candidate forum in Campbell on Monday. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

Candidates running for Chair of the California Democratic Party swung by the South Bay to answer questions at a forum on Monday — each making the case for why they are fit for the role.

Following the hourlong candidate forum, the Silicon Valley Democratic Club voted to endorse Kimberly Ellis, a progressive activist and former executive director of Emerge California, a training program for Democratic women running for office.

The five candidates answered six questions focusing on styles of leadership, priorities and vision for the state party, and how to combat sexual harassment following the resignation of former Chair Eric Bauman, who was accused of sexual misconduct and enabling a workplace culture of harassment last November.

“This is a really important event, since the most recent chair was forced out,” said Michele Dauber, a member of the executive board of the Silicon Valley Democratic Club, during the forum at the Campbell Community Center. “We care about how the candidates will address sexual harassment.”

The candidates included Ellis, who lost by a close 60 vote margin to Bauman in 2017, Rusty Hicks, a labor union activist and lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Daraka Larimore-Hall, vice chair of the party, Lenore Albert, a social justice advocate and Bernie Sanders supporter and Mike Katz-Lacabe, an education advocate who sits on the San Leandro School Board.

Hicks was the only candidate who did not attend the event. Instead, a surrogate, David Urhausen from the South Bay Labor Council, represented him at the forum.

Ellis said the California Democratic Party’s culture has become toxic and called for sweeping new rules, including a code of conduct and delegate handbook. She proposed consequences for those who violate the rules.

“We need to bring about culture change in this party,” Ellis said. “For far too long this party has had a culture of abuse, bullying, harassing and retaliation. That needs to change. We can’t just create a diverse party, but a safe party.”

Larimore-Hall also supported a code of conduct, adding that party officials need to take responsibility and provide “spaces and counseling for healing and support” to victims who had experienced sexual harassment within the party.

Urhausen responded on behalf of Hicks with a plan to create a task force to work specifically on education and awareness of sexual harassment, while Katz-Lacabe firmly noted that a culture change happens through example.

“I’ll demonstrate that leadership and attitude that will be required from all the appointees,” said Katz-Lacabe, adding that “treating everyone with dignity and respect,” especially when there is disagreement.

Albert, whose views differed slightly from the others, said that a person who understands the corporate world and how industry rules are implemented is needed to instill order within the ranks of the California Democratic Party.

“There are laws and rules and you bring in third parties that train people in corporations saying what you can and can’t do in the workplace,” added Albert. “Handbooks codify the law.”

Another recurring theme on Monday was instilling accountability among party officials, creating more inclusivity and diversity within the party and implementing successful fundraising strategies to push California Democrats to victory in 2020.

The most contentious question was how the chair would balance the interests of corporations with the needs of both the middle and working classes, demonstrating a divide between the hard-labor and the pro-business factions of the state party.

“That’s easy,” said Albert. “We can’t beat Republicans without big donors.”

Larimore-Hall was quick to repudiate that claim, arguing that major corporations “don’t need to control both parties.”

“The reason we stick around in this party is because of the issues,” added Larimore-Hall. “We should be out there engaging with voters mobilizing around progressive legislation that makes a difference in their paychecks and daily lives.”

“It’s a false narrative that you can’t support both poor and working people and small businesses,” said Ellis, taking a more environmental approach to business practices. “I will ensure that we require our businesses to focus on people and our planet.”

Urhausen said business is important, but the current structure only gives large corporations the opportunity to succeed.

“We as labor are often fighting against corporations for our fair share,” said Urhausen on behalf of Hicks.

Several attendees Monday expressed concern that the new party leadership will not live up to promises. Others, however, expressed positivity about the direction the party is headed.

“I was very impressed with all of the candidates,” said delegate Robert Means. “I came in with my mind set on who to vote for, with the opportunity to convince me otherwise and I heard a lot of good things from several candidates.”

While Means was set on voting for Ellis, Larimore-Hall was a close second. “She (Ellis) said things that echoed what I wanted to hear. I was impressed with how she presented her positions.”

The candidates will attend another forum hosted in Santa Monica next Wednesday. The party will select its next chair at its convention in San Francisco on May 31 to June 2.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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