Agranista “Old Guard” Swept Out of Power at Democrats of Greater Irvine Club Meeting.


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Clockwise from lower left: Farrah Khan, Iyad Afalqa, Ron Varasteh, Ken Wyant, Melissa Fox, Larry Agran, Beth Krom.

[1] In Summary

Last Sunday, January 29, former Congressional candidate Ron Varasteh was elected as President of the influential political club Democrats of Greater Irvine (“DGI”), which focuses primarily on Irvine but has had membership and interests extending well beyond its borders.  Varasteh was swept in as part of a multiracial and multi-religious slate; its four candidates prevailed while the fifth slots was uncontested.

The results of a Club race may strike readers as perhaps not worthy of a story — but it is.  It signals what may be a sea change in Irvine politics, which for years — as donations by the Democratic Party of Orange County (“DPOC”) itself attest — have been absolutely central to OC’s local Democratic politics.  DGI has been one of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential clubs in the county.  Irvine also spent the ’00s as OC Democrats’ greatest success story, as Dems held the City Council majority and the Mayor’s office during that entire time.

The faction swept out of office last weekend was the one supported by former Irvine City Council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom, who have been dominant in Irvine Democratic politics for almost two decades (and, in Agran’s case, longer.)  It was also strongly promoted by newly elected Irvine City Councilmember Melissa Fox — who is now the sole Democratic member of Irvine’s City Council — and her well-connected husband Mike Fox.

Their candidate, outgoing 68th Assembly District Delegate and incoming 68th AD DPOC Committee member Ken Wyant — we’ll call this the “Wyant Slate” in his honor — was expected to face the then-incumbent DGI Chair Iyad Afalqa, who cobbled together what we’ll call the “Afalqa Slate.”  Irvine Democratic politics, even more so than those in the rest of the County, “ain’t beanbag” (as the saying goes); those named above and their allies conducted an extensive, bitter, and scathing phone campaign against Afalqa.  I’ll omit details of those calls here unless challenged on this fact by someone more credible than the host of our rival blog from Irvine, at which point I guess I’d just have to collect and provide them!  (Reluctantly, of course.  And that’s not facetious.)

The Afalqa slate won the old-fashioned way, by organizing an enormous number of people to come to the DGI meeting, pay their dues, and vote.  But then Afalqa threw the Wyant slate a curveball by stepping aside as its candidate for President in favor of Varasteh.  No personal calumny that had been directed against Afalqa was going to stick to the more stylistically moderate Varasteh (despite their both being Bernie Sanders supporters); Varasteh, while generally an ally of Afalqa when it comes to Irvine’s electoral politics, has historically also had cordial relations with the Foxes.  (Note: this blog as well has consistently endorsed Varasteh, Agran, Krom, Melissa Fox, Wyant, Afalqa and most of the other names appearing in this story for both political and party office.)

It’s not often that deft political pros like Agran, Krom, the Foxes, and their allies get outmaneuvered by insurgent “reformers.”  (Note: both factions would describe themselves as “progressive” — and, given the fluidity of that term, probably have legitimate right to it, although in different ways.  It would be fair to describe the Agran/Krom side as largely “Hillarycrats” and the other side as largely “Berniecrats” — a rift within the party that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon.)  But that result itself would not likely have led me to publish this story.  It was what happened after the vote took place that warrants public notice.

[2]  The Challenges

The relative power of the Agran/Krom (and I’d say “Fox” too, but they might object) faction within the formal DPOC power structure would be hard to overstate.  The Irvine Democratic majority was a major, major priority of former DPOC Chair Frank Barbaro (right) — who is and was close to Agran, Arthur Forde, Stu Mollrich, and George Urch — and Irvine, Fullerton, and Laguna Woods were the main tripod of support for recently departed DPOC Chair Henry Vandermeir, who was very active in field campaigns for Krom in particular and was aggressively promoted and defended by Agran.  The new Democratic Party of Orange County Chair, Fran Sdao (below left), has for unclear reasons not been favored by at least some members of this faction (who were recruiting challengers to her) — although everyone fell into line once Sdao’s sole declared challenger for Chair, Westminster’s excellent Diana Carey, decided to withdraw from that race and instead become the DPOC’s Western Vice-Chair (a position for which she is fantastically appropriate.)

Sdao was the convenor of the DGI meeting; if it was not the first time she had faced a baptism by fire in her position than I don’t know what was.  She reportedly conceded to a key procedural demand posed by the faction supporting the Wyant slate: it wanted the club’s five officer positions be elected on a single ballot rather than having five separate races.  (Presumably, the attacks on Afalqa would thus drag down his entire slate.)  Afalqa, knowing what was up his sleeve, conceded to their demand.

The Wyant slate’s gambit of turning the election into a race between slates failed, as the influx of new dues-paying and Democratic-registered club members accepted Afalqa’s request that they vote for Varasteh instead.  The tally of the votes showed that Varasteh and the rest of the slate that Afalqa had assembled won what would what is fair to call a stunning upset of Irvine’s Democratic “Old Guard.”  And then things quickly got very unpleasant.  One lumbering and obscenely abusive fan of the Old Guard backed two college students into a corner until Afalqa had to wade in and rescue them — “welcome to Democratic politics, college students!” — and another well-heeled supporter proposed something so underhanded that I’m simply not going to describe it without giving that person a chance to deny it.

What did continue in force, from Sunday through Tuesday, were two challenges:

  1. that the Treasurer candidate (a young guy whom I’m not going to name, him being a relative “noncombatant,” who had for a time re-registered Green in protest of the California Democrats’ treatment of Sanders, but switched back in time to run) (a) was not a Democrat and (b) had not paid his dues prior to the meeting; and
  2. that Varasteh had not paid HIS dues prior to the meeting.

(Simply describing these charges does not capture the vitriol behind them.)

A check of voter registration records showed that the Treasurer candidate had indeed re-registered Democratic in time to run.  Varasteh was able to produce a receipt showing that he had paid (through a weird online method that was supposedly favored by the club.)  His payment was eventually verified by the incumbent Treasurer, who was running for re-election.

However, a search for the dues payment by the Treasurer candidate showed that it had not been received!  That candidate was later able to show a receipt from what I’m told was a different online payment service recommended by the club, which had failed to forward his payment to the club.  It included language saying something like “Thank You for Your Contribution,” which might reasonably have led him to believe that he had, in fact, made a contribution.  Had he known that he had not made a contribution he could have made a contribution right then and there, but (being new to the club) he had not gone through the customary check-in process at the meeting.  So, the Wyant slate’s supporters argued, he had not met the qualification of having paid his dues prior to the election.

This is the kind of adventitious technical bullshit that we from the Democratic perspective tend to associate with Republicans.  (Republicans, I presume, think the same of us, but with less merit, I would argue.)  Look, the guy used a system recommended by the Club to pay his dues and he didn’t find out about it on the day of the meeting!  He reasonably relied on that payment method, and on the message it provided him that his payment had been successful, so just let him pay his dues now and take office!  Should be simple, right?

It wasn’t.

[3] Some Pertinent History

As President of DGI for the last two years, Iyad Afalqa has often been assailed by club members associated with the Agran/Krom faction.  What happened last Sunday through the early part of last week was part of a broader factional conflict among Irvine Democrats.

Readers of this blog would largely know about this factional conflict from the occasional story here and (for those who dare go there) from the continual fluffing of the “Old Guard” faction (including the temporarily departed Sukhee Kang) and sniping at the usurpers in Dan Chmielewski’s Irvine-centric Liberal OC blog.  But hardly anyone who isn’t politically tied to Dan C. (or a Donald Trump fan) reads it, and few of them are willing to own up to commenting there.  For most of the public, the most visible manifestation of this conflict has been last year’s Irvine City Council race, where the DPOC endorsed Melissa Fox (who is an Agran/Krom stalwart, although she kept a discreet distance from Agran while she ran for Council) and Farrah Khan (below left), who has been best known for heading an Interfaith Council in Orange County.  Two South Asian women, Shiva Farivar and Anila Ali, also ran for Council, with most observers seeming to believe that they had mostly split the vote with their fellow South Asian female candidate Khan.

Republicans had two credible candidates in incumbent Christina Shea and Anthony Kuo.  (Shea and Kuo’s mentor now-Assemblyman Steven Choi have themselves been at war with their fellow incumbents Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott.)  A third candidate, Dale Cheema, was not viewed as particularly strong.  There were enough votes for Farivar and Ali that, had they been redistributed to Fox and Khan, both would have had more votes than Shea.  (Fox finished ahead of Kuo for the second spot on the Council; Khan behind him.)  Most DPOC members thought that we should endorse and try to elect two candidates, hoping that they would both edge out Shea as well as Kuo.  As a result, DPOC endorsed both Fox and Khan — as did this blog.

Khan accepted that result, although with some concerns that DPOC would follow through with its support from Fox and not for her.  That concern was well-grounded.  Fox’s top supporters had only one agenda in the Council race: electing Fox.  They viewed votes for Khan as a threat either to take votes away from Fox (and land her behind Kuo) or to place Khan ahead of Fox with Fox also behind Shea (and thus out of the money.)

There are good self-interested reasons why Fox would not have wanted to promote Khan as well — but those reasons come at a price.  Enmity between these factions — Khan is very well liked by Afalqa, Varasteh, and those close to either of them — is part of that price.

Fox, who came in a close third to Lalloway in the 2014 Council election, has had an advantage over Khan when it came both to public awareness of her and to “Old Guard” endorsements — but the lesson of the DGI election is that the power of the Old Guard is waning (having now failed to elect Mary Ann Gaido twice for Mayor) and the power of the multicultural insurgents is growing.  Fox needs them — but so far has not been embracing them.  (As with Hillary, she has sought and received support from establishment Republicans, though.)

Khan, by the way, last month took over Sdao’s old position as DPOC’s South Vice Chair — the counterpart to Carey in the West, my brother-in-law Jeff Letourneau in my old spot in the North, and sole elected incumbent Jeanette Burns in Central County.  She ran unopposed.  So she’s still around and will be extremely involved in Irvine politics in this next political cycle.

[4] How It Was Resolved

OJB editors hadn’t known that DGI was meeting on that Sunday to elect officers.  (To be fair, I was probably informed of the meeting by email — but I had no intention of doling out to join DGI just to support Afalqa, despite my respect for him, and so was not paying close attention.)  I heard after the meeting, though, that various bits of hell had broken loose there — and that, most disturbing to me, Farrah Khan (who so far as I know had not been involved in the election) was being called onto the carpet by Fran Sdao for some reason.  (I never tried to verify this with Sdao, largely because I really didn’t want it to be true, and didn’t really want to know if it was true, given my sense is that whatever that meeting was amounted to nothing.  What happened wasn’t Khan’s doing; Fran — who has excellent people-management skills — would likely understand that .)

Afalqa

On Tuesday, though, I did get a call asking me if I could look at DGI’s Bylaws to assess what the rights and powers of the Afalqa slate’s supporters were.  So I took at look at it and passed along my opinion: what was happening was horseshit and SGI’s own Bylaws put the incoming officers in charge of adjudicating the dispute.

Apparently, the people supporting the Wyant slate ultimately came to the same conclusion.  With about two hours left in the term of the old officers — the new officers took office on February 1 — the incumbent Treasurer conceded the race.  Sadly, this came only after the aggressive tactics of the Old Guard had already generated a lot of bad blood.

I understand why they’re upset: they’ve been in control for a long time and the notion that some new group can swoop in and take all four of the five positions they sought has to be distressing to them.  What they may miss, however, is that the Afalqa faction not only played a polite game of electioneering — I haven’t heard about any abusive phone calls regarding Wyant et al. — but that they played entirely within the rules.  Afalqa was permitted to bring in a whole bunch of new people — and their delightful aggregate measure of dues — into the party.  The powers behind the Wyant slate could not do so — or, if they could have and didn’t, then they should know exactly who they can blame.

The problem with Democratic Party politics in Orange County is that while people are increasingly registering Democratic — at least relative to the sloughing off of Republican affiliations — those people are not getting involved in local politics.  Frankly, I’ve heard complaints that the party does not seem to be particularly welcoming (except of people’s dues.)  The election of Varasteh and the other new DGI officers points not just to how they won a vote, but how they can transform a party.

I know that giving up control is hard, but I would hope that members of DPOC and its clubs would embrace this sort of development.  This is our future — if we’re to have one!

Meanwhile Varasteh (below, in the ocean) seems to be intent on taking on the mantle of a peacemaker.  I asked him for a comment on the situation, and this was his reply:

My top priority is to unify the different factions that have been forming in the past decade.  I want and will support progressives getting elected at the city, state, and federal officers in Irvine, Lake Forest, Tustin, and our other surrounding communities.

I can live with that.  I hope that everyone can.

[Note: photos (other than the collage) and first word of the headline provided by Vern Nelson.]


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)