Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was famous for saying “All politics is local.”
Some three decades later, local races appear to be generating more energy than ever. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) put an exclamation point on his initial presidential campaign by calling on activists to run for city councils, school board seats and other local races. He made his pitch in online videos and numerous speeches, even hinting at the message during a trip to Santa Cruz. “The political revolution that we talk about is not about me, it’s about you,” Sanders told a crowd at the Kaiser Permanente Arena nearly four years ago.
Now Sanders is a serious contender for the national Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Some local Sanders supporters, meanwhile, are organizing to take over the leadership of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee (DCC) and try to remake the local party’s leadership in their own image—with a slate they’re calling the Brand New County Democrats.
The Santa Cruz County DCC has historically flexed considerable political muscle for county candidates at the local, state and national levels, as well as for local ballot measures. The organization oversees voter registration outreach, bestows highly sought-after endorsements, and manages a war chest of fundraising dollars. The DCC is allied with both the California Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee.
No DCC race has appeared on a primary ballot in decades. That’s because a vote from registered Democrats on their local leadership is only required when there are more candidates than open seats. Local DCC members normally run unopposed for open seats, thereby requiring only a majority vote by members of the DCC.
This year is different. There are 31 candidates for 20 open seats on the local DCC, which has its representation divided into the county’s five supervisorial districts. Seventeen of those candidates are running the Brand New County Democrats slate. They all have shared experience in the “Santa Cruz for Bernie” organization. Nora Hochman, one of those running for a seat on the committee, says the current DCC has not been leading the charge on liberal causes.
“The people that have sat on the DCC are invested in the status quo, sometimes financially … and the status quo in this community does nothing for anyone,” says Hochman, a career union organizer who’s running for a DCC seat for the first supervisory district, the mid-county region represented by Supervisor John Leopold on the county Board of Supervisors.
The candidates will be on local California Democratic Primary ballots Tuesday, March 3. One key issue that sparked this challenge from the Brand New County Dems was the 2018 rent control initiative, Measure M, which Hochman helped author and which the DCC did not endorse.
Brand New County Dems also criticize the current DCC for its less than full-throated support of the Green New Deal and what they perceive as a lack of affordable housing advocacy.
Les Gardner, a decades-long Democratic Party booster and former DCC member, has spearheaded successful voter registration drives in the past. These days, he expresses concern about the new progressive insurgency’s slate for the DCC.
“The effort to replace this committee with a new untried group of people who make up just one faction of the party sends the wrong message,” Gardner writes in an email to GT. “We need all hands on board this year. On the surface it appears that one faction would be in control to the exclusion of any other Democrats who may think differently. Whether you’re a moderate Democrat or social Democrat, this is not the message that we need to send to be successful this year or in the future.”
Tony Russomanno was recruited to serve on the DCC as a progressive six years ago by another DCC member at a Gay Pride Parade. He’s now running for reelection, and is not part of the Brand New County Dems slate. Russomanno makes clear he thinks there are some fine activists and organizers on the slate. He says he’s worried, though, about a few he says have a scorched-earth approach to policy-making.
“Too often some of these progressive activists conflate being listened to with getting their own way. You just can’t have an all-or-nothing approach, which I’m afraid some of these candidates have shown. If voters are happy with the behavior of some of these candidates yelling and screaming at city council meetings, they will be delighted with the future of the discourse at the DCC if they are elected,” Russomanno says.
Stacey Falls, one of the Brand New County Dems candidates, does not believe that her cohorts would be difficult to work with.
“I think being principled is different than not being willing to compromise,” she says.
Five incumbent members currently serving on the DCC are supporting Sanders and running for reelection on the Brand New County Dems slate.
One of them is Glenn Glazer in the county’s fifth district. “It is true that Bernie inspired many of us to get involved in politics, but it is not true that we are in lock-step with him, or that our candidacies are somehow dependent on his. We are progressives running for local office and the presidential race is largely outside of it,” he says.
Nonetheless, a possible new majority of Sanders supporters on the local DCC would render it a different organization than it has been in the past. That has some other local Democrats concerned.
“We—the Democratic Party—are a very large tent and all voices need to be heard. When a faction of the whole says they are going to take over the SCCDCC, are they going to hear all of those voices? That is my concern,” wrote Coco Raner-Walter in an email to GT. Raner-Walter is the current DCC chair, who’s running for reelection.
Hochman doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party is a ‘big tent.’ I think it is a phony ‘big tent,’” says Hochman, arguing that the party doesn’t prioritize poor and working people’s issues.
There’s already a conflict in loyalties between the Democratic Party line and the Brand New County Dem slate over the endorsement of Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel), who the state Democratic Party has already endorsed, thereby requiring the DCC to do the same. The Santa Cruz for Bernie group has endorsed Panetta’s primary opponent Adam Bolanos Scow, a young Democrat from Watsonville campaigning as an ardent supporter of the Green New Deal.
Hochman wonders if the DCC can find a way out of backing Panetta, though she concedes that likely isn’t possible.
Fellow slate member Glazer says that, no matter the outcome of the committee races, it will be the DCC’s job to continue working with Panetta, should he win this year.
“Our job will be to work with him if he’s elected, and tell him how we as a constituency feel about issues,” Glazer said. “As I say to [Congressmember] Anna Eshoo when I talk to her about single-payer health care, ‘Dance with me on the things we agree on, and for other issues, I’ll find different dance partners.’”