What determines under what circumstances—and how energetically—the California Democratic Party intervenes in contested Democratic primaries?
The question came up after the state party poured thousands of dollars into last month’s primary battle for the Senate District 9 Democratic Party nomination between current District 14 Assemblymember Loni Hancock and former District 16 Assemblymember Wilma Chan, helping to fuel Hancock to a 56.8 percent to 43.2 percent victory. An attempted endorsement in an Imperial county race, thwarted at the last minute at the state Democratic convention, prompted similar questions about the propriety of the party’s role in primary campaigns.
Key portions of the endorsement and candidate support process during the primaries are shrouded in mystery, information either deliberately withheld by the state Democratic Party or made difficult to obtain.
The framework for California Democratic Party endorsements appear in the party bylaws, which are published on the party’s website at www.cadem.org.
Under these bylaws, primary election endorsement nominating recommendations take place by written ballot within the 21 regional caucuses at the party’s annual convention, held this year on the weekend of March 28 in San Jose. Endorsement recommendations of incumbent candidates to an office need to get only a simple majority of the regional caucus votes, while non-incumbents must get a 60 percent majority. Endorsement recommendations are then forwarded to the floor of the full convention, which approve them by voice vote on a consent calendar.
Who actually makes the endorsement decisions?
As outlined in the bylaws, the 2,700 member Central Committee of the state Democratic Party consists of a collection of elected officials, appointees, and individuals elected at county and regional conventions throughout the state. But a representative at Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento said that list of the names of the Central Committee membership can only be obtained for a $50 fee.
The state party closely guards the process by which it determines how much money each campaign receives in party donations as a result of the party endorsement.
“That’s all decided by internal discussions,” state Democratic Party campaign adviser Bob Mulholland said by telephone. Asked to explain, he compared it to a football game “where the players meet before the game to discuss strategy.” Asked to explain further, Mulholland said that the final decision on how much money to give to each endorsed campaign in the Democratic Party is decided by state party chair Art Torres after Torres “consults with various individuals.”
The results of those consultations can vary widely and dramatically.
In the 30 State Senate or State Assembly races endorsed by the state Democratic Party in last month’s primary—aside from the Hancock-Chan Senate 9 race—the party reported in its last official financial statement a maximum donation of $1,162 and a minimum of $407 for a total of $32,803 for the 30 races. In that same period, the party donated $41,669 to the Hancock effort.
Hancock eventually received another $100,000 in last-minute donations from the state Democratic Party following the last formal reporting period, bringing her total donations from the state party to $144,779. As the Daily Planet reported last month, that was more than 23 percent of her total contributions from non-individuals during her entire two-year fund-raising effort.
During the primary, Chan’s campaign charged that Hancock and the state Democratic Party were using donations from the party to circumvent state laws limiting donations to individual candidates. California election law allows the state party to give unlimited amounts to candidates, without specifying where the money came from, or to disclose whether the persons who donated the money to the Democratic Party earmarked it for specific candidates.
Although the party declined to provide an explanation for the disparity in the donation amounts, the absence of serious opposition in a primary, or any opposition at all, may provide one explanation.
In 27 of the senate or assembly primary races in which the Democratic Party made donations, the candidate who received the donation was running unopposed.
In Assembly District 39 (Los Angeles County), where incumbent Assemblymember Felipe Fuentes easily beat paralegal Louis Shapiro 74.2 percent to 25.8 percent, the party donated $406 to the Fuentes campaign. That case was similar to Assembly District 62 (San Bernadino County), where incumbent Assemblymember Wilmer Carter beat education advocate Gil Navarro 60.4 percent to 39.6 percent. The party gave Carter $940. And in Riverside County’s Assembly District 64, the party gave $1,162 to Paul Rasso in his 97 percent to 3 percent victory over Darryl Terry in a battle of write-in candidates.
In 17 contested Assembly races and four contested State Senate races during the June 3 Democratic primary, no candidate received sufficient endorsement votes at the state party convention district caucuses for the party to intervene.
Meanwhile, the party’s practice of endorsing non-incumbent candidates in contested primaries has come under fire in some state Democratic Party circles. In April, Democratic Central Committee delegate Dale Wissman posted an entry to the California Progress Report website on the controversy surrounding attempts to get a party endorsement in the 80th Assembly District (Imperial County). In that primary, in which the party made no endorsement, school board member Manuel Perez took 36 percent of the vote in beating out three challengers for the nomination.
In his posting, Wissman wrote that “eleven scrappy delegates [to the state convention in San Jose], the majority of whom were first timers, found it necessary to stand together (no matter which candidate they supported) to ensure that the Party made no endorsement in the AD80 race.”
Wissman said that the reasons for their position on non-endorsement “had everything to do with good old-fashioned democracy and fairness. … Imagine the mess if the Democratic Party attempted to endorse Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as the Party’s presidential candidate BEFORE any voters had a chance to cast primary ballots in their state. Do you think some people would see it as unfair if Barack was endorsed over Hillary (or vice-versa) without a primary vote? You bet. Do you think it would create conflict? Absolutely. Yet, that is exactly the scenario that played out in San Jose at the state Democratic Party Convention in the 80th Assembly.
“Perhaps most disturbing for us, and many of the other eleven delegates working together in San Jose, was why the Democratic Party was even trying to endorse a candidate BEFORE the June primary election in the first place,” Wissman concluded. “It only makes sense that the Democratic candidate in the 80th Assembly District who gets the most votes in the June Primary should be the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate.”