California Democrats chose a Los Angeles labor leader over a progressive firebrand from the San Francisco Bay Area as their new party chair in a race forced by the resignation of the party’s former leader over sexual harassment allegations.
Rusty Hicks was chosen Saturday by a majority of the California Democratic Party’s most fervent activists to lead the party into the 2020 election cycle.
As head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Hicks and his backers argued he was best poised to do the nuts-and-bolts organizing that drives campaigns.
He pledged to build on the party’s 2018 success, when it flipped seven U.S. House seats long-held by Republicans, and to “unify a very diverse membership around a common goal and do the hard, gritty, house-to-house, work that’s really required to win these elections.”
His decisive victory — with support from 57 percent of delegates — was a surprise to many who thought activist Kimberly Ellis would make a strong enough showing to force a runoff.
It was a clear demonstration of the weight of the party establishment that overwhelmingly backed Hicks over activists who came into the party fold two years ago because of support for Ellis and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Ellis ran unsuccessfully for chair in 2017 in a bitter battle that reopened wounds of the 2016 contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. She narrowly lost to Eric Bauman and contested the results, keeping the party friction alive for months and turning off some members of the party establishment.
Ellis had pledged to bring a “black and brown” agenda to the party and to reinstate trust between party leaders and activists. In a statement following the results, Ellis called for unity while suggesting delegates faced “extraordinary pressure” over their votes.
“Certainly, there are challenges for us ahead, and I hope our new chair can bring harmony to our party during these difficult times,” she said.
It was Hicks’ focus on his background as a labor organizer that brought rank-and-file delegates and party leaders alike to his cause. Some suggested they liked him because he wouldn’t be a spotlight grabber.
Isabel Storey, a delegate from Santa Monica, said “he has the best experience and ability to get things done.”
Hicks said he hopes Ellis’s backers bring their passion “to make this party better.”
Hicks pledged to “end the disgrace of sexual harassment and misconduct in our party,” noting he created a task force to come up with a zero tolerance party.
Bauman, the former party chair, resigned in November amid allegations he sexually harassed and abused staff. Former party staff members have filed three lawsuits against Bauman and the party, alleging other leaders knew about his behavior and did not stop it. Bauman has denied the allegations.
The election happened during a three-day convention in San Francisco that featured speeches from 14 Democratic presidential candidates.
The party will host another convention in November where delegates will decide whether to endorse a candidate. Hicks has said he will not personally endorse anyone.