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Progressives File Lawsuits Against California Democratic Party Over Endorsement Process

Stephen Jaffe (right) and Maria Estrada (middle) pictured here with Tim Canova (left). Image source: Maria Estrada's Facebook page.

California has emerged as a battleground between progressives and the Democratic Party establishment given the stronghold Democrats tend to have there in state and federal races. Progressives have clashed with the Democratic Party establishment during its closely contested race for State Party Chair in May 2017, called for primary challenges against several Democrats in office, and are aggressively pushing California Democrats to rally behind adopting a Medicare for All system in the state. The California Democratic Party’s endorsement process provides party leaders with a mechanism to leverage against this surge of progressive activism and demand for change.

In response to this endorsement process, primary challengers against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon have recently filed lawsuits over how the California Democratic Party handled their petitions to challenge the automatic party endorsements of these two incumbents.

Stephen Jaffe faces an uphill battle in challenging Pelosi in California’s 12th Congressional District, but he managed to obtain 37 delegate signatures to challenge the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of Pelosi. Jaffe alleges that after he paid the petition fee of $350 and submitted his signatures, the party told him the 20 percent threshold required 38 signatures, and that one of his signatures was disqualified because their address didn’t match what they had on record.

Jaffe claimed he was only provided a list of 182 eligible delegates by the party, only to be told there were 190 eligible delegates once his petition was completed. When the list of delegates was provided to Jaffe’s Campaign, it included a disclaimer that it was the most up to date version as of November 30, 2017, the deadline to amend the list according to California Democratic Party rules. During a hearing held by the party’s compliance review commission, the new list of 190 delegates was cited to have been created between January 5, when Jaffe was sent the list of delegates, and January 17, 2018, the same day petition challenges were due.

The hearing allowed a response from Pelosi’s Campaign. “Anytime a list changes it affects all candidates equally,” it stated, though Jaffe claims he was not allowed to speak or respond during the hearing.

“The CDP’s endorsement process is rigorously detailed in our bylaws, and we followed the process to the letter. All candidates were simultaneously provided the entire list of eligible voters, and all candidates were provided simultaneous updates as we confirmed the eligibility of voters who required additional steps for verification after the initial list was provided to all candidates,” said John Vigna, Communications Director for the California Democratic Party in an email to me in response to Jaffe’s allegations.

If his petition was accepted, Pelosi would have been removed from the consent calendar at the state convention, where a formal vote from party delegates would decide who to endorse in the race.

His campaign is formally challenging the California Democratic Party’s rejection of his petition, but the hearing is scheduled for the next California Democratic Party Executive Board meeting in July 2018, a month after the primary.  The party rejected his plea to expedite the hearing.

“The by-laws mechanism providing the automatic endorsement of incumbents combined with the notion that non-endorsed candidates should drop out is an affirmative policy intended to prevent or impede anyone from challenging any incumbent,” Jaffe said in an interview with me.

Maria Estrada, who is challenging California House Speaker Anthony Rendon faced similar issues.

Rendon has clashed with progressives in California since June 2017, when he decided to shelf SB 562,  a bill which would create a Medicare for All system in the state of California. Despite passing in the State Senate, Rendon argued the bill was “woefully incomplete.” No alternative has yet been proposed, even though Democrats hold the Governorship and majorities in the state house and senate.

Estrada submitted a petition to challenge the party’s endorsement of Rendon with 11 signatures, one more than the required 20 percent of 48 eligible delegates to remove Rendon’s name from the consent calendar at the State Convention. She alleges Rendon was provided a list of delegates who signed her petition, and coerced two of them to send letters asking the party to rescind their signatures. Estrada argues there is no precedence for, and nothing in the party bylaws, permitting petition signatures to be rescinded.

The California Democratic Party Communications Director John Vigna contradicted this assertion, stating in an email to me, “Our bylaws are clear that once a ballot has been cast, it cannot be rescinded, but that restriction only applies to ballots. There is no prohibition against removing signatures on petitions, and it’s been the Party’s longstanding practice to remove signatures upon the written request of the Delegate.”

The Compliance Review Commission denied Estrada’s initial challenge rejecting the petition, but did request the party’s rules committee “examine the issue of signature rescission to clarify and create a clearer, stricter standard.” The commission also noted there was no precedence in stating, “In discussing the challenge, CRC noted that the CDP Bylaws are silent on the issue nor of any prior submissions of petition signature rescissions.“

The delegates who sent the letters rescinding their signatures from Estrada’s petition are South Gate City Clerk Carmen Avalos and Maricela Parga. Both did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Parga’s son, Guillermo Parga, was cc’ed on the letter sent to the California Democratic Party, likely as he helped write the letter due to the fact that Maricela Parga speaks very little English. Guillermo Parga’s Linkedin cites he worked on a Welcome Brunch for Speaker Rendon in 2016. In Avalos’s letter, she wrote, “I do not wish to proceed with challenging his endorsement for AD63,” without offering an explanation.

“Rendon, with the help of the California Democratic Party, was allowed to strong-arm two female delegates and convince them to write rescission letters,” said Elizabeth Castillo, a delegate in Assembly District 63 who helped obtain signatures for the petition. She noted the delegates are fully aware of the endorsement process and petitions, and denied any claim or implication that she misrepresented a petition.

“It is clear by the way my endorsement submission and subsequent submission of over 20% required signatures of delegates to block Speaker Anthony Rendon from being put on the consent calendar at the convention, thereby ensuring he would receive the party’s endorsement, that the California Democratic Party has a severely flawed endorsement process,” Estrada told me. Her appeal is also scheduled for July 2018, after the primary. The California Democratic Party cited the appeal was scheduled for the next regularly scheduled meeting of the California Democratic Party Executive Board.

“We don’t comment on pending lawsuits,” said Bill Hong, Rendon’s Campaign Manager, in a phone interview with me. “We did submit to the Democratic Party 32 votes which met the threshold for getting the Democratic Party endorsement, so there would be no motive for us to challenge that petition because we had more than enough votes to defeat her for the endorsement regardless.”

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Written by Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a freelance journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has been featured in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Denver Post, The Hill, Observer, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.

Michael is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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All of these tactics are specifically put in place to kill off progressive candidacies to protect incumbencies. They should be roundly derided as roadblocks to democratic governance.

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Progressives File Lawsuits Against California Democratic Party Over Endorsement Process