An Emerging Progressive

Richmond resident Kimberly Ellis advocates for electing more women to public office, and she wants to become the next chair of the California Democratic Party.


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Kimberly Ellis is bets known for leading Emerge California, a group that trains women for elected office.

Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell

Early on in Kimberly Ellis’ upstart bid for California Democratic Party chair, two African-American women with strong ties to the local Los Angeles political power structure wanted to discuss her challenge against longtime LA County party boss Eric Bauman. “I thought they were going to be so supportive—another sister running for office,” said Ellis. She was wrong.

‘“Who the hell do you think you are running for this position?’” Ellis recounted the women saying. ‘“If you run for this position, it will be political suicide. No one will every touch you again.’”

Knowing Ellis’ strength as a fundraiser, the women advised her to “ask” Bauman, the then-presumptive frontrunner to replace state chair John Burton, to appoint her to one of many vice chair positions. “In that instance I thought, ‘This is the California Democratic Party? This is not the party that espouses progressive values.’”

It was a moment of clarity for Ellis. “This does not belong in our party. We should not be trying to choose who the choices are,” she said. “That’s not the party I want to be part of. It’s time to give this party back to the people.”

The parallels between the Democratic Party establishment’s hand in helping Hillary Clinton last year and the early institutional support for Bauman are obvious. It’s also a reason why Ellis’ candidacy has gained statewide support among progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters and why she has a chance of upending how Democratic Party politics is played in California. Ellis also has garnered some impressive endorsements, including from the California Nurses Association, and has the financial backing of Democratic Party heavyweight Susie Tompkins Buell.

Ellis, who was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and now lives in Richmond, points to her grandmother’s belief in what it means to be a Democrat—caring for the poor and supporting working-class people—as having a profound effect on her. Before her campaign for state party chair, Ellis was best known for leading Emerge California, a grassroots organization that seeks to train and mentor women for elected office. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is one of Emerge California’s best-known graduates. Alameda City Councilmember Malia Vella is also an alum.

Ellis, 43, said she intends to strengthen the state party by borrowing heavily from Emerge California’s playbook. “What Emerge California is doing is what the party should have been doing a long time ago: building the bench with well-prepared and trained women for office,” she said.

Staying true to the grassroots mantra of Sanders, Ellis says her bid for party chair is a reform campaign. “I’m not in this to make friends. I’m in this to be the voice and the conscience of this party.”

Bauman supporters, though, scoff at Ellis’ attempts to attract Berniecrats, noting that Ellis backed Hillary Clinton for president. Ellis responded that the November presidential election changed many things for her and many Democrats. “The hard truth of the matter is the Democratic Party, as an institution, and even some of our leaders of the highest level have forgotten what it means to be a Democrat,” said Ellis. “For me, it’s about what it means to be a Democrat and instilling trust. We have to give them a party worth fighting for. Right now, people don’t believe in this party. People don’t trust this party.”

Despite Bauman’s camp raising questions about Ellis’ allegiances, Sanders supporters don’t seem to mind. In fact, Ellis’s chances were boosted in January when a wave of Berniecrats across the state won delegate seats to the California State Democratic Party Convention, where they will choose between Ellis and Bauman on May 20. In the East Bay’s 18th District, which includes portions of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro and is represented by Assemblymember Rob Bonta, a slate of Berniecrats upended the status quo by defeating all of Bonta’s handpicked delegates. And now Alameda County Democrats are strongly on board with Ellis. Alameda resident Gabrielle Dolphin, a member of the winning 18th Assembly District slate, said support for Ellis was part of the group’s litmus test for inclusion.

In addition, many Bay Area politicos, including Dolphin, view the party chair race as an extension of a long-running North-South rivalry. Bauman has strong backing in Southern California. “It will be interesting to see how much discomfort there is down there with corporate Democrats and the struggle going on in our country right now,” Dolphin said. That includes mistrust for the national party and growing sentiment for ousting business-friendly Dems. “Bauman’s got experience with smoky backroom deals and things like that, but if you look at what Kimberly has done with Emerge, that’s exactly the skill that we need. We need to fire people up and that is how we’re going to build the party.”

Perhaps realizing the drubbing delivered by Berniecrats during the recent delegate elections, Bonta endorsed Ellis in March, crediting her with “harnessing the power of disaffected progressives and reinvigorating longtime party activists.”

If Ellis is successful, grassroots Democrats are going to expect much in terms of bringing reform to the party, including fighting back against President Trump and retooling the position of party chair. Burton, a longtime political heavyweight, often avoided being a public spokesperson for the party, instead opting for the occasional press release and public comments laden with salty, profane language. Ellis said California is the most influential state party in the country and should be attempting to coalesce various factions and attract new members. “This is an opportunity for the chair of the party to utilize the platform and the megaphone that comes with it to take a lead on the national stage and help rebrand this party because we have a branding and messaging problem.”

Ellis said that if elected, she has no plans to oust moderate Democrats, even if grassroots party members may feel differently. “It’s the chair’s job not to target elected officials, but to continue to hold up our progressive party platform as our guiding documents and continue to call the question on what our legislators are doing to move us toward a more progressive state for all of us,” she said.

Ellis supports a proposal to eliminate automatic campaign endorsements for incumbents—a plan that would force each elected official to defend his or her record before various endorsing bodies. She also supports moving the state toward publicly financed elections and weaning the party off of mega donors like Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Tobacco. “All money is not good money, and there’s definitely some money we should not be taking,” said Ellis, who has raised more than $400,000 through 700 individual donors.

As for President Trump and his anti-California rhetoric, Ellis is not inclined to take the bait. After all, one of her guiding principles is “Play your game, not theirs.”

“I’m not one for name-calling. In fact, I’m not one for talking a lot because, quite frankly, I think this party has done too much talking and not enough acting.”

Instead, Ellis would simply remind Trump of California’s clear economic muscle and fundraising capacity, she said. “We do a lot of things right in California and this is an opportunity for us to take a leadership role on the national stage and to get this party back to winning,” said Ellis. “We can be a Petri dish, a test lab for the rest of the country.”

 

Published online on May 1, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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