When Democratic Party Bosses Cling to Power

In a move to consolidate control at the expense of everything else, California Assembly Speaker John Perez has diverted resources from competitive "swing districts" and is instead meddling into Democratic primary fights in deep-blue seats.
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California's new map of legislative districts offers Democrats an historic opportunity to pick up seats in November -- and win a two-thirds majority that would make Republicans irrelevant. But in a move to consolidate control at the expense of everything else, Assembly Speaker John Perez has diverted resources from competitive "swing districts" and is instead meddling into Democratic primary fights in deep-blue seats. In West L.A., for example, State Assemblywoman Betsy Butler has carpet-bagged into the new 50th Assembly District with the Speaker's blessing -- a district where she currently represents less than 2% of its constituents. Perez has gone all-out to help her defeat progressive champion Torie Osborn (such as stacking the deck at Party endorsement meetings), but this weekend delegates at the California Democratic Convention will have their say when it comes to a State Party endorsement. Meanwhile, Perez and the leadership have ignored other Democrats like Al Muratsuci and Cathleen Galgiani with few financial resources -- although they are fighting winnable battles in more challenging territory.

Ten years ago when it came to redistricting, Democrats in the legislature made an unholy alliance with Republicans to carve "safe" districts for each party. Not only did it polarize the legislature, but it also gave right-wing Republicans artificially high representation -- at a time when the state was getting younger, browner and more progressive every year. But with a new map drawn by a Citizen Task Force, Democrats are poised to gain seats this November -- and if they play their cards right, maybe win a two-thirds supermajority. If that should happen, we could finally pass real revenue solutions in Sacramento that make millionaires and oil companies pay their fair share.

If you were John Perez, the Speaker of the State Assembly, this should be an historic opportunity to herald resources at expanding the Democratic majority. Instead, he has made the re-election of Assemblywoman Betsy Butler his #1 priority. Even if it means moving her to a new district -- because the one she currently represents is no longer as "safe" as it was. Even if it means having her challenge other Democratic candidates, progressives who have deeper ties to that community. And even if it means using the State Party's obscure rules to stack the deck at Democratic Party endorsement meetings.

In 2010, Democrat Betsy Butler was elected to the State Assembly in what was the 53rd District (Torrance, Redondo Beach, Marina Del Rey and El Segundo), defeating Tea Party Republican Nathan Mintz. But now her district has lost its more progressive areas to the north, and picked up conservative Palos Verdes in the south. It's a tougher district, no doubt -- but Democrats still have a 3% registration edge there. And with Mintz running again, an incumbent with high name recognition should prevail with presidential turnout.

But that's not what she chose to do. To the dismay of her South Bay constituents, Butler has opted to run in the heavily Democratic 50th Assembly District -- which includes Santa Monica and Malibu. And because the new 50th Assembly District overlaps with her old 53rd District by one square mile (or 1.7% of the district), she can claim to be an "incumbent." Rather than do what is good for the Party, Butler is just thinking about herself -- by picking a "safe" seat.

Butler's Democratic opponents are Torie Osborn, a long-time lesbian activist endorsed by Sheila Kuehl, Tom Hayden and others -- and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom. But rather than allow a very liberal electorate to choose among three Democrats for a "safe" blue seat, Speaker John Perez has diverted crucial funds to help Butler defeat her local challengers -- when the money can be used elsewhere. He and other Democrats in the legislature have donated over $88,000 to her campaign (more than any other Democrat running for Assembly) -- and with Perez using his influence as Speaker, she has also received record sums from labor and environmental PAC's.

It's shenanigans around the California Democratic Party endorsement, however, that make Speaker Perez's involvement shameful. At the grassroots level, every Democratic Club in the 50th Assembly District that has taken a position in this race voted to endorse Torie Osborn -- from the Malibu Democratic Club, to the Democratic Club of San Fernando Valley to the Santa Monica Democratic Club. But when State Party delegates who live in the 50th District met in January to vote on an Endorsement, Butler came in first with 57%. How did that happen? Perez rigged who gets to vote.

In order to be a State Party delegate, you must either get elected to a Central Committee -- or have an State Assembly member appoint you. Each Assembly member can appoint up to five delegates -- but incredibly, only a minimum of three must live in the district. So Speaker Perez asked all Democrats in the Assembly Caucus to "set aside" two of their five appointments for him to select -- so he can pick people who live in the 50th Assembly District, for the purpose of "stacking the deck" at an endorsement meeting for Butler.

How blatant was this? At the State Party's 50th District's endorsement meeting, Butler received 64 votes. Thirty-eight of the 64 votes were from delegates appointed by State Assembly members outside the 50th District, some as far away as Riverside County. In other words, the regional endorsement meeting -- held two weeks before the State Party Convention, for the purpose of giving the Party guidance on how to get involved in a local race, was rigged by outsiders appointed by the Speaker to help a carpet-bagger.

Meanwhile, back in Butler's old district, another Democrat -- Torrance School Board member Al Muratsuchi -- is running in a swing district against two Republicans with high name recognition: Nathan Mintz (who ran against Butler in 2010), and Craig Huey (who ran for Congress in 2011, and shocked everyone by making it into a run-off against Janice Hahn.) He will have a tougher time than Butler would have, although the race is still winnable for a Democrat. But without considerable help from the Party leadership, Republicans could win that seat.

To date, not a single Democrat in the State Assembly has contributed to Muratsuchi's campaign. Even State Senator Ted Lieu, whose district covers much of this territory, gave $1,000 to Butler -- but nothing to Muratsuchi. And in the Central Valley, where Democrat Cathleen Galgiani (a former Assemblywoman) is hoping to pick up a red State Senate seat, Perez and the Democratic leadership have likewise not contributed.

As L.A. blogger Marta Evry recently wrote, all of this raises a troubling questions -- do Sacramento Democrats even want to win a two-thirds majority, or is just too convenient to keep blaming those "evil" Republicans on our state budget woes. In any event, it clearly shows the Democrats under John Perez acting in a more defensive mode to protect their "club" of members -- rather than any objective standard to move state politics in a more progressive direction, while the rest of us suffer the consequences.

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