Erika D. Smith

Kimberly Ellis, the most powerful, unelected person in California Democratic politics

Surrounded by supporters, Kimberly Ellis waves to the crowd after addressing the California Democratic Party convention on May 20.
Surrounded by supporters, Kimberly Ellis waves to the crowd after addressing the California Democratic Party convention on May 20. AP

Long before she was “unbought and unbossed” – or “unhinged” as I’ve heard a few backers of the California Democratic Party mutter – Kimberly Ellis was a military brat attending elementary school in the Presidio.

The way she tells it, that’s where she first “caught the bug.” She had to do a report on someone she admired in politics and discovered Shirley Chisholm, the New Yorker who, in the early 1970s, bucked the Democratic establishment and became the first black woman elected to Congress.

“I decided I want to be just like her when I grow up,” Ellis told me over lunch last week.

Now 43 years old with two children of her own, she is certainly trying.

It has been exactly a month since Ellis rattled California’s political establishment by coming out of nowhere to nearly become the next chair of the state’s Democratic Party. The margin was a mere 62 votes and she would’ve been the first black woman to hold the position. She lost to Eric Bauman, the longtime chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, who had been expected to coast to victory.

But Ellis hasn’t conceded. And watching her eyes flash with defiance while explaining the convoluted details of how Bauman’s people “stole” the election, I’m guessing she won’t do it anytime soon.

“I will not concede this race until we have validated the results,” Ellis reassured her supporters gathered on Cesar Chavez Plaza last month.

Her campaign wants an independent audit of the nearly 3,000 votes cast, but the party has said no and Bauman has started hiring senior staff. The matter is now in the hands of the party’s Compliance Review Commission. On Friday, Bauman’s team said it hired a law firm to “independently oversee, advise and counsel” the commission.

But let’s get a real. There’s probably going to be a lawsuit and it’s definitely going to have national political ramifications.

Democrats hope to flip seven congressional seats next year, and topple President Donald Trump in 2020. To do that, though, the party will need a united front, not a court battle dragged through the sewer of social media and lampooned by Breitbart.

As Bauman told The New York Times recently: “If there’s a path to the Democratic Party regaining control of the House, it starts in California.” That means, if there’s a path to unity in the party, it will start here, too.

That puts Ellis, a cult hero of sorts with a large following among the progressive, Bernie Sanders-esque wing, in a position of enormous power.

Will she insist on challenging Bauman’s legitimacy even if it drives an even deeper wedge between progressive and establishment Democrats? One that is perhaps irreparable? Or will she concede if it becomes clear that it won’t lead to more transparency in future party elections? Or is pouring gasoline on this already raging dumpster fire of family feud actually the plan?

The answers to these questions depend a lot on what motivates Ellis.

A Generation Xer with the idealism of a millennial, she is clearly a leader. She’s incredibly self-assured and comes across as both standoffish and warm, professional but approachable. She says she wants to “groom a new and diverse generation of political leaders,” and redefine the party by “bringing it back to basics.” That’s Sandernista-speak for making the 99 percent a priority.

“It’s calling the question: ‘Who are we as Democrats?’ ” Ellis said.

But fighting the well-oiled machine that is the California Democratic Party is no small thing. Ellis talks as much about party politics as she does about getting back to grass-roots community organizing and being part of “the movement.”

Before running against Bauman, Ellis had never really pursued elected office. Instead, she spent almost a decade mentoring women to run for office as executive director of the Bay Area nonprofit Emerge America, and then Emerge California.

Under her leadership, Emerge became a true force, with a presence in 20 states. In California, more than half of the program’s alumni are women of color, and when they run for Democratic office, they win an impressive 76 percent of the time.

Her ideals haven’t changed much since her time with Emerge. She espoused them just the same on the campaign trail last year. That purpose of politics – Democratic politics anyway – is to “care about poor people” and never stop fighting to right society’s inequities and injustices.

Ellis says she first heard that from her grandmother, who grew up poor in Chattanooga, Tenn., and carried it with her to high school in Puerto Rico and to college in Florida.

“My philosophy is that politics should be used to help others and do good. That it is a privilege and an honor to be an elected official. That if you are a Democratic elected official in the state of California, your job should be focusing on doing what’s right for your constituents and being responsible for them. Not to the special monied interests.”

Bernie! Bernie! Sorry. I mean, Kimberly! Kimberly!

“We’re kind of out of time,” Ellis added a while later. “Marginalized communities. Humans. How much time do we have to play these games?”

In her view, we the people don’t have time for the typical horse-trading that comes along with politics. We don’t have time to wait for cheaper health care or reductions to carbon emissions or criminal justice reform or more affordable housing – the consequences of potential mistakes be damned.

It was hard to argue with her, sitting where we were in gentrified Oakland, munching on hipsterfied Indian food, less than a block from men in hardhats examining the facade of a new apartment building, and ignoring row after row of homeless people living in tents.

Saying that change must happen and that politicians have a responsibility to do it right now sounds good – especially to the millions of disengaged, left-leaning voters who have found a voice now that Trump is in the Oval Office. But that notion is also so idealistic that it’s almost autocratic.

Our political system, like our bureaucracy, was designed to be slow. It was designed for compromise. Otherwise we’d be at the mercy of Trump and his voters who expected him to change everything immediately.

There has to be a middle ground. The Democratic Party might not need to go full Sanders-level progressive, but Bauman and others do need to find a way to bring new voters into the fold and explain why governing shouldn’t be about instant gratification, why real public policymaking takes time and why voting matters.

Newly engaged voters don’t know these things and they need to be told, not ignored.

On this, Ellis has the right idea – and there’s no need to destroy the party to make it happen.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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