Home state Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are among the candidates coming to court thousands of party faithful at the California Democratic Party's annual convention, a major draw for activists who get far fewer chances to interact with presidential hopefuls than their counterparts in traditional early-voting states.
But they'll be sharing the weekend's spotlight with an election for a new party chair . Former chairman Eric Bauman resigned in November, weeks after Democrats made sweeping electoral gains, amid allegations he drank on the job and sexually harassed and abused staff. Three lawsuits have been filed against Bauman and the state party, alleging leaders failed to stop Bauman's behavior or retaliated against those who complained.
The candidates are set to make speeches to delegates on Saturday and Sunday, and it's unclear how much each will be interacting directly with and taking questions from voters and the media. But the conversation is sure to permeate the gathering, serving as an uncomfortable reminder of the party's broader struggles to find its footing in the post-#MeToo era that's brought the downfall of prominent leaders in politics, business and media.
"I would hope that coming to California would put Democrats in a position where they feel like they have to say something," said Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of political science at Occidental College in Los Angeles who focuses on gender and the presidency. "The situation with Bauman, and the way in which it infected the party in this state in terms of what appears to be an apparent cover-up, I don't think the Democratic candidates can come to the state and not comment on it without being perceived as tone deaf."
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been accused by multiple women of making them uncomfortable through unwanted and overly familiar touching, is not scheduled to attend the gathering. He's the only big-name contender skipping out on the gathering, which is a major stop for candidates this year because California moved up its primary to March 3, known as Super Tuesday.
Christine Pelosi, chair of the party's Women's Caucus and the daughter of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, plans to introduce a resolution to set up training for all delegates to fight implicit bias and sexual harassment. But she doesn't think the conversation will put candidates in a particularly awkward spot because sexual harassment is a widespread problem.
"I don't think it's something unique to the party. What is unique is we are being upfront and open about the fact that we need to address it," she said. Still, the issue has hit Democrats particularly hard in California, where multiple Democrats in the state Legislature have resigned since late 2017 over accusations of vulgar comments, groping and unwanted kissing.
Kimberly Ellis, a candidate for chair who narrowly lost to Bauman in 2017 in a race that reopened wounds from the party's 2016 presidential primary, called the accusations against Bauman and the party's handling of them "the elephant in the room" that candidates should address.
"I'll be curious to see which of our candidates comes to the convention talking, of course, about their platform but also talking about what is going on right here in California — how it is a microcosm of our politics today in this country, and why it is important that we address it," she said.
Ellis is viewed as one of three main contenders for the job, alongside party vice chairman Daraka Larimore-Hall and labor leader Rusty Hicks. Ellis said she'd create a new delegate handbook and manual on harassment, while Hicks said he's already convened experts to come up with reforms to the party. Larimore-Hall, meanwhile, said he'd work to change the party's "culture of intimidation."
"It will be interesting for folks coming in from out of state, in whose worlds the presidential race is the sun and the moon, and be possibly upstaged by the internal contest in the party," he said. Three lawsuits have been filed against Bauman, alleging he repeatedly groped staff, made sexually explicit comments, discriminated against a staff member because she was black and, in one case, forcibly performed oral sex multiple times on an employee. In one, two staffers allege they were fired by the party in December for helping another employee file a complaint against Bauman.
Bauman has denied the allegations against him through his lawyer, Neal Zaslavsky. "Mr. Bauman will not be trying his cases in the media, and therefore has no further comment about any lawsuit. He wishes his fellow Democrats well and hopes for a united front to hold the many seats we gained in 2018," Zaslavsky said in an emailed statement.
Alexandra Gallardo Rooker, the party's acting chair, has not confirmed or denied charges against the party in two lawsuits, saying the courtroom is the most appropriate venue to "let the sunshine in."
The other candidates attending the gathering are New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker; former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.