Closing Argument Against 20 Years of Chair Bauman: “It’s the Autocracy, Stupid*”

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*You are not actually stupid.  Blame James Carville for that phrase!

A party of everyone — or a party of only one?

There is much to like about Eric Bauman, especially if you appreciate his track record as a mentor for the LGBT community (as you should.)  And there is much to like about Kimberly Ellis as well, especially if you appreciate her track record of fostering political success for women and especially women of color (as you should.)  I see these advantages as offsetting: I refuse to judge whether having shown leadership in one such demographic group is somehow better than the other.  They are both leaders of important and opressed constituencies; they satisfy that criterion with equal effectiveness.

Yet they are also very different, especially in one important area: their approach to wielding power.  Bauman styles himself as a “strong leader” who will impose his will (and treat his friends well, which is one why so many people don’t want to cross him).  Ellis is more likely to seek strength through consensus and openness to disparate points of view.

That’s your difference, right there.

They’re both sharp as tacks; they’re both excellent communicators; they can both run a large organization competently.  But they take different approaches to political power: whether it is to be stockpiled and used to impose one’s agenda, or shared across disparate players without demand for fealty — even at the expense of sacrificing some ability to force people to do one’s bidding.

If California were a small state with limited influence, I would — even though it goes against my instincts — appreciate the theoretical value of having a strong leader who would focus our attention on achieving our goals: a “party of one.”  But we’re not.  We’re a huge state.  We’re the most influential state.  We are, in essence, the best hope for the whole country right now — and to the extent the U.S. remains its international dominance, we are thus the best hope for the world.

How the Democratic Party of our state is run — particularly the fairness and openness and collabirativeness with which we influence Presidential and Congressional and State and Local elections — plays a big role in how well we can fulfill that hope.  Will we be inclusive to the point of being amenable even to radical change?  Or will we clamp down on our current and prospective followers — even at the cost of alienating them — to ensure that we DON’T risk rocking the national and even international boat?

Do we want an autocracy — or a small-“d” democracy?  That’s the question we face.

Of course, it’s not a question to be asked in the abstract.  I don’t think that there is much doubt that Ellis is well-equipped to manage a messy large democratic organization as well as anyone can be: but of course there’s only so well that such an organization can be managed.  Listening to others, sharing power, having many minds contribute to making decisions — this sounds great, but it comes at the expense of inefficiency.  Autocracy, by contrast, offers as its selling point the ability to make decisions quickly, effectively, and definitively.

The output of a democratic process is malleable and undetermined.  The output of autocratic process, by design, is not.  So the critical question is less what kind of democratic Democratic leader Ellis would be than what kind of autocratic Democratic leader Bauman would be.

He’d have to be “like unto a god” to manage the political leadership of a state of almost 40 million people effectively and wisely.  And he’s not.  He’s just not.  He has a history of showing favoritism to his supporters, valuing loyalty even at the expense of merit — and he’s shown a willingness to bully dissenters into submission to his dictates.  (In fact, he’s probably doing one or both right now!)

Bauman can be charming — or terrifying.  He can be self-deprecating, but not self-abasing.  He roars and he stomps and he slashes.  (If any readers are thinking “you’re a fine one to talk about that, Diamond!” — well, I’m not running for one of the most significant political positions in the world.  And in wielding power, rather than speaking truth to it, I tend to be a lot more like Ellis than Bauman.  I despise governance by threat and by fear — not only because it is distasteful, but because ultimately it tends to work poorly.  It prioritizes and rewards the wrong skills and motives in the interest of translating personal effort into collective success.)

Many highly influential progressives — including electeds — support Eric Bauman because they think that they had damn well better.  I don’t know anyone who mentions being concerned about retaliation by Kimberly Ellis if after she wins they are discovered to have failed to support her; I know all sorts of people — from highly placed to lowly committee appointees — who may vote for Bauman because they fear the personal consequences if they do not.  (If Bauman wins, as is looking less and less likely the more desperate he appears, it will be due to the outsized influence of ex officio voters due to their appointments.)

In fact, the argument I have made to undecided voters that seems to startle and move them the most is this:

“You should vote for Kimberly Ellis even if for no other reason than to cancel out the vote of someone who is voting for Eric Bauman EVEN THOUGH THEY WOULD PREFER NOT TO DO SO! 

But what saddens me most is the second rank of party leaders, etc. — those whom support Bauman because their causes have at times received less attention than they think they should and they appreciate the prospect of having a strong leader who will promote them.  (In most cases, this is anything but selfishness on their part; it’s a true commitment to the causes they care about.  I do note mean to disparage them or their choices.)

I differ with them because — based both on my academic background as a social psychologist and political scientist and my practical background as an attorney — I just don’t believe that you can trust an autocratic leader to be consistent or reliable.  In other words: just because the strong leader has been solicitous towards you when he or she has needed you to attain power doesn’t mean that he or she will continue to be solicitous to you once in power.

And then — because the strong leader will tend to focus on retaining power above all — you (and your causes) are pretty much screwed.  The siren song that calls California liberals away from major reform is rarely “let’s be evil!”; it’s usually “let’s be prudent.”

It’s: “Not yet.  Not now.  Go slow.  Think small.  Think of how this will play with the donors.  Think of the political dangers.  Don’t be the one to make a mistake.”

It’s simply easier for a would-be corrupting influence to get to one individual than it is to get to many of them.  (Corporate negotiators are taught and brag about being able to isolate the specific interests of the union leaders at the negotiating table from the people they represent.  California is fortunate in having so many excellent leaders who can resist such temptation!)

And the same is true when they deal with party leaders.

I think that this is especially true when their goal is not to outright stop them — what fool wants to take on an Eric Bauman head on when he’s built up a head of steam? — but merely to deflect them or to blunt their impact.  And that is the danger we reformers usually face in our state.

It’s much harder to stop a leader whose power won’t come from their own autocratic decision to do X or do Y — a decision that can be reversed at will — but who has fashioned and nurtured a movement that will demand that X or Y be done.  Which of these potential leaders would be more willing to give life to a movement that would not be easy for them to control at the flip of a kill switch?

To me, the answer is pretty obvious: it’s not the autocratic one.

Do you want to stop fracking?  Impose an oil excise tax?  Implement split-roll reform?  Roll back POBOR?  Achieve single-payer in one state?  Don’t look to people’s position papers.  Positions are easy to take; and there’s nothing easier than accepting a pat on the back when one has made a show of trying to achieve some grand goal but having to “accept reality” when it turns out that one’s opponents are too strong or one’s allies are too nervous.

With few exceptions, an autocratic leader is only autocratic within their organization: they can turn on the switch — and they can damn well turn it off when they want to.  (That’s part of the point of autocracy!)  Not only does “power yield nothing without a demand”; power generally yields nothing without the lack of an alternative!  And when there’s only one mind to change — when there’s a kill switch on progress, that can be flipped when there’s a deal to be made — then there’s always an alternative.  It’s just a matter of the price tag.

Ellis and Bauman probably agree with each other about 90% of the time — and I probably agree with each of them about the same amount.  I see the difference between them as this: whether I agree with them or disagree with them on a given issue, with a leader like Ellis I know what I need to do if I want to make a positive change or avoid a negative one: get my act together, make connections, and gain traction.  I am happy to live by those rules.

With a leader like Bauman, when I want to make a positive change or avoid a negative one, I also know what to do, and it’s completely different.  I try to influence him.  Wheedle, raise money, lobby, make a deal.  In the end, he’ll decide.  I am not happy to live by those rules — I don’t even know what is going on inside the black box of decision-making.

There’s another area where the autocratic leader is deficient: making decisions about who does and does not advance.  In most organizations, that refers mostly to advancement within the structure; with a political party, it also means who advances outside of it: who we present to the public for its approval.

I don’t like autocratic leadership — “insider,” “top-down” — not simply because it doesn’t appeal to my aesthetic sense, but because I think that it has shown time and again in recent years that it just doesn’t work well.

It especially doesn’t work well for the people who were made promises by an autocratic leader.  Like Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, they can always alter the deal.  And then, seriously, what are you going to do? They can promise the same one position to 20 people; what are you going to do after you’ve already given them your vote? You can’t take it back; it’s too late.

An authoritarian leader can also play a completely outside just roll in candidate selection, where if you don’t do with that leader wants, including hiring who that later says, you may not get their support. Or maybe it’s not the leader themselves, but their chief of staff, or whoever advises the chief of staff.  ( I could tell you stories about that, but I don’t have the space or time here.)

I’ll tell you just one story about a race I know well: in 2012, I was the Democratic Party endorsed challenger for Senate District 29, against then Senate minority leader Bob Huff. I was a sacrificial lamb and I knew it – the most important thing I did that year was to pay about a third of the money that I raised to  pay half of the money that was needed to open a campaign office in Fullerton, one that was later used for the unified campaign that elected Sharon Quirk-Silva in the overlapping district of AD-65.  (As it was a unified campaign, she didn’t have to pay a dime — and it turned out to be an important base from which she launched her historic victory in that seat in 2012.)

I was expected to get slaughtered by Bob Huff, most people seem to think by about 25 or 30 points. Instead, I lost by only 10. Suddenly, this recently-thought-hopeless district was on everybody’s map for 2016.   The institutional party shipped somebody up from Irvine, in the believe that an Asian candidate could win this district, given the success that Asians had had that year in the overlapping assembly races.   Well, Republican Party Chair Jim Brulte figured that out as well, and so he discarded their strongest candidate and instead went with the rather silly assemblywoman Ling-Ling Chang, who was perfect counterprogramming for the institutional Democratic candidate.

Anyone with clear vision could see that the candidate from Irvine was not going to win that contest — so I supported this upstart, a guy named Josh Newman, who the institutional party leaders had come to disdain and tried to drive from the race.  I don’t think that the party’s vice chair, Eric Bauman, even truly came up with his own opinion about the race, but just ratified the strongly held opinion of the county party.

When Josh came to the county party’s nominating meeting, people wouldn’t even talk to him or make eye contact with him; I was one of his few supporters there.  After a while, feeling alienated and insulted, he prepared to leave. I offered to make his speech for him, and did so, telling them what I, as the prior nominee who knew the district pretty damn well, perceived there on the ground.

Josh got skunked in the vote.   But he kept fighting, even though he could not get most people involved in the county party to take him seriously. He was a brilliant campaigner with a witty message, and a warm, engaging demeanor. Those things matter.

In the run-up to the opening of voting, the party establishment had heavy hitters including Betty Yee come out at a big rally, well advertised, for Josh’s opponent.  There were dozens of people there from the party, including electeds from all over.  And there were about a dozen people in the audience. The disconnect between what insiders knew and believed about the district, and the actual facts on the political ground, were massive and jarring.

One of those dozen people in the audience had been sent there from Josh’s campaign. He would later say that the moment when he got that report was the moment that he knew he would win.

And he did win. And he followed up that primary win, having raised and roused an army of volunteers, and ultimately receiving strong support from the institutional State Democratic Party — thank you, Majority Leader Kevin De Leon! — he beat the assemblywoman from half the district and gave us the super majority in the state Senate that we are using right now to reform California for the better.

We won the general election, but the critical moment was the primary. Authoritarian, insular, institutional leadership almost lost us the state Senate majority we have won.   A grassroots campaign, and I truly electrified army of volunteers, are the ones who saved it.   The real grassroots, the true grassroots, the grassroots that may not be formally part of the Democratic Party but is part of the potential democratic voting electorate, is what mattered there and what has mattered elsewhere.

We need leadership that will listen. We need leadership that knows not simply that two heads are better than one, but that 2 million heads are better than one.  We need someone who will listen to and bring together the different parts of our party without fear or favor, but based only upon who can help us achieve what we need to achieve, and what the nation and then world needs us to achieve.

That will not come from a so called strong authoritarian leader. It just doesn’t work. It will come from Kimberly Ellis. Please, stand with the bride democratic voting electorate, the full scope of which we have not yet even fully seen.  Vote this afternoon, and again tomorrow morning if need be, for Kimberly Ellis.


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.)