Capitol Alert

People skills, political savvy propel ‘Jewish kid from the Bronx’ toward top California post

Miguel Santiago, an assemblyman representing downtown Los Angeles, was worried about a close friend.

He had stopped going to church, wasn’t attending political meetings and wouldn’t return calls.

Then Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, got on the phone. It wasn’t long before Santiago and his buddy were talking again.

A tough taskmaster who has served as the Southern California point man for powerful politicians, Bauman has endeared himself to partisans though his loyalty, persistence and stem-winding speeches delivered with New York attitude.

For Santiago, a product of his mentorship, Bauman’s ability to work with people stands out.

“He can be stern at times, and he certainly is a determined fellow. But at the core of who he is, is people,” Santiago said. “When somebody gets in trouble he will reach out. When somebody gets out of line he will put his fist down. It’s not the stuff he shouts. He has this human side you don’t hear from the stage.”

Bauman, 57, a trained trauma nurse who went on to work in hospital administration and health care consulting before settling into politics, now wants to parlay his relationship skills into a big promotion: He’s the favorite to become the next chair of the California Democratic Party. Once held by Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Brown and Phil Angelides, the post comes open next year with the departure of John Burton, a legendary figure known for his colorful and often profane interactions.

While still obscure to most Californians, Bauman built his county party into a force since taking over in 2000. He professionalized the organization, taking it from a $50,000 budget and one part-time employee to a nearly $2 million operation with six full-time staff. He racked up awards for excellence in political mailers and videos, and solidified the party endorsement, which he closely oversees, as one of the region’s most coveted.

“He invested in the infrastructure of the party in a way that no other candidate ever has,” said former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat and a close friend of Bauman.

His hands-on manner has earned him endorsements from an overwhelming number of elected officials and party leaders.

“His rise is a testament to his tenacity and perseverance,” added Daniel Zingale, a former top official to Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger who has known Bauman for more than 30 years. “In an era when it’s fashionable to say ‘I work for the person, not the party,’ he has steadfastly committed himself to the Democratic Party. Personalities in Eric’s worldview come and go, but the values remain something people can rely on.”

Bauman’s path to the chairmanship, a position that pays $115,000 a year, appeared clear until campaign operatives and an underdog challenger in recent weeks began raising questions about his ethics. They suggest he is leveraging his positions for personal profit, and contend it’s inappropriate for Bauman to serve as a paid consultant to initiative campaigns given his ability to influence activists and party staff during the endorsement process.

Supporters of the fall ballot initiative campaign aimed at curbing prescription drug prices are upset over payments from the opposition, led by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), to Victoryland Partners. The firm is run by Bauman, his husband, Michael Andraychak, and Adam Seiden, executive director of the L.A. County Democratic Party.

Victoryland has received $25,000 from the “no” side, according to state filings. Bauman said the work is being done primarily by Seiden, and repeatedly stressed he’s never lobbied anybody to reject the drug price initiative. The county and state Democratic parties have taken no position on the measure.

“When I am on issues, I am very vocal about them,” Bauman said, calling the accusations a “smear.” He said proponents were given ample opportunity to make their case to activists. “This is very injurious to me because it makes it look like I am shilling for PhRMA.”

Democratic strategist Garry South, leading the drug price initiative campaign, said he has not been given a fair shot at the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party, despite the endorsements of other county Democratic Party groups.

South said he was working in good faith with Seiden before making a presentation to the county party’s ballot measure committee, “only to find out after the fact that he was working the whole time (with) PhRMA.”

“Proponents of progressive ballot measures should be able to count on objectivity and fairness from the officers and staff of the Democratic Party, not find out they are actually on the payroll of one of the worst special interests of all,” South said.

Bonnie Castillo, associate director of the California Nurses Association, which supports the drug price initiative, said she’s disappointed to see anyone campaign against what she considers a “first step” to bringing down patient expenses. The nurses are endorsing Bauman’s opponent, Kimberly Ellis.

Earlier this month, Ellis called for a “frank discussion” among activists about conflicts of interest. A leader of Emerge California, which trains women to run for office, Ellis said she’s had “many opportunities to ‘cash in’ and leverage my position for personal gain.”

“There was easy money on the table, but I always walked away, not because I couldn’t use a few extra bucks to pay for tennis camps and baseball tournaments, but because I made a commitment to Emerge California,” Ellis wrote in a recent email to activists.

Working as an outside political consultant isn’t unusual for party leaders. No issues were raised over Bauman’s firm receiving $156,000 from hospital groups for a measure to lock in funding from a Legislature-approved fee on acute-care hospitals; $21,000 to boost a $9 billion school facilities bond; and a small cut for working against an unsuccessful 2014 initiative to boost the maximum medical malpractice award.

He also has a day job where he earns more than $150,000 a year as a chief consultant in Los Angeles to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, supervising a team that provides constituent services and training to other Assembly offices.

Rendon said Bauman ran his political consulting through ethics attorneys and found no conflicts of interest. Rendon added he’s pleased with the performance of the unit, but is assessing the need for it in light of the recent term-limit extension.

Bauman, who worked in the same capacity under former speakers Toni Atkins and Pérez, said he would discontinue his employment in the Legislature and any political consulting if elected party chair.

“I would have to,” he said, given the time demands of the job.

The son of an Army officer and registered nurse, Bauman is a self-described ‘Jewish kid from the Bronx.’ He grew up in Queens, talking politics around the table, and moved to California at 18 for a change of scenery. The funding mechanisms for health care at the time were changing, and Bauman started a nursing career that placed him in inner-city hospitals where he saw large numbers of uninsured and Medi-Cal patients.

He tried nursing organizations to sate his political appetite, yet nothing clicked. A pivotal moment came after an encounter with Bill Clinton in 1991, when Bauman and health care providers met with the presidential candidate to talk potential government reforms. Bauman said he was swept away by Clinton’s command of the system. Months later, he was invited to a Clinton campaign event in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Bauman knew John Garamendi, Clinton’s state chairman, from his work in the Legislature on universal health care. Garamendi took him backstage to see the candidate, and Clinton recalled their first meeting, saying, “ ‘You’re that nurse boy from the San Fernando Valley, aren’t you?’ ” Bauman said. Clinton gave a speech laying out his vision for America, telling the LGBT group that they were part of that future. He touched on the scourge of AIDS, and the friends he lost.

“I was a total and complete convert to Clinton at that point,” Bauman said. “I would have done anything for him.”

Bauman stepped up his participation in the Stonewall Democratic Club, and was elected president in 1994. They eliminated term limits so he could stay on, and he took the club from 250 members to 1,100. He helped create a formula to identify likely gay households, using Stonewall to send them mailers and advertising. As a volunteer in Davis’ primary campaign in 1998, he organized and secured the gubernatorial candidate’s first major endorsement.

Before taking over the L.A. County Democratic Party, he took a job with Davis to help with health care, LGBT and political work, eventually becoming his full-time director in Southern California. Bauman was among the first aides to start the anti-recall campaign.

Davis described Bauman, who with Zingale and Susan Kennedy helped shape first-in-the-nation legislation for gay rights, as a tenacious advocate for progressive causes: “He’s fair-minded, calm under pressure, and pragmatic in understanding the various competing interests on any range of social issues,” Davis said.

“He brought that insight to my staff, and in the ensuing years since he has only continued his enduring work to advance the progressive agenda, which makes him eminently qualified to run for this post,” he added.

Following the recall, Bauman joined then-Insurance Commissioner Garamendi’s staff as a deputy, overseeing community relations and low-income programs, and helping with his election to lieutenant governor. Pérez brought in Bauman to build out the Speaker’s Office of Member Services in Los Angeles.

Meantime, at the county party, he set out to construct a coalition, with grit and an intense style one friend compared to the actor Ray Liotta.

As a vice chair of the state party, Bauman has expanded his influence with regular visits to rural counties where he rallies outnumbered Democrats. Winning races in places like Shasta or Kings counties is difficult given Republican advantages in voter registration, but Bauman reasons the local foot soldiers work hard and often don’t get the institutional encouragement they should. His speeches generally pillory Republicans while appealing to Democratic ideals.

No crowd is too small, said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic consultant. “If there are three people assembled anywhere in the state, and two of them call themselves Democrats, Eric Bauman will give them a speech,” he said.

Agi Kessler, a longtime San Fernando Valley activist, learned from Bauman how to put together a slate mailer, write scripts for phone-banking and make sure precinct walkers were motivated. She admits the chairman was “not always sweet” and has no patience for bickering.

“He can be cranky and lay down the law and say ‘get your act together,’ ” said Kessler, chair of the state party’s Senior Caucus. “He doesn’t tolerate nonsense well.”

Darren Parker, an Antelope Valley activist, said Bauman’s push into red areas of the county helped Democrats drive up registration and win an Assembly seat.

Bauman is “everything a party leader is supposed to be – passionate in his principles, tireless in work ethic and operational in approach,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, of Los Angeles. Democrats have enjoyed historic political majorities and policy achievements in Los Angeles County and across California, and Eric is a huge reason why.”

He previously sought the state party chairmanship seven years ago but deferred to Burton. This time, Bauman wants to grow state Democratic registration from a plurality to a majority by attracting youths, immigrants and second-generation voters. Focusing on expanded health care and affordable college, he wants to renew attention on training a diverse pool of candidates.

He pledged to help repeal the state’s relatively new primary system in which the top-two candidates, regardless of their party, advance to a fall rematch. Bauman believes it empowers wealthy business groups to play games with the electorate by spending big to boost certain candidates and sink others.

“I hate it,” he said of the system. “Democrats should determine their own nominee.”

Sizing up his own contest, Bauman concedes he’s the insider, an establishment candidate at a time of frustration and mounting distrust in institutions. The chairmanship is not a particularly powerful position, Bauman reasons, but it’s one where he can work his tactical skills and ply his web of connections.

“To be a legislator is great if you want to be one of 80,” or 40, he said. “I am much better at going out and bringing a crowd to its feet and getting them excited about going out and winning an election. That’s truly what motivates me.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

Eric C. Bauman

Age: 57

Party: Democratic

Residence: North Hollywood

Education: Nursing, Excelsior College (University of the State of New York, Regents College); health care administration, Century University

Experience: Chair, Los Angeles County Democratic Party, 2000 to present; vice chair California Democratic Party, 2009 to present

Family: Married with two dogs