Kimberly Ellis wants to be chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, one of the most influential political forces in the nation.
She has visited Fresno twice in recent weeks to make her case to local party activists. Many of those party faithful will have a hand in selecting their next leader at the state Democratic convention, which begins Friday in San Francisco.
The selection comes at a time of turmoil in the state party’s leadership. Chairman Eric Bauman was forced to resign late last year amid charges of sexual misconduct. Ellis narrowly lost to Bauman in a bitter and contested race for the party’s top post in 2017. She is now running to fill the remainder of Bauman’s four-year term.
Ellis, one of seven candidates for the post, spoke at a recent event hosted by the San Joaquin Valley Democratic Club and the California Latina Democrats.
She made her name in state politics by serving as executive director of Emerge California, an organization dedicated to electing Democratic women. Her bio lists Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf as successful participants.
In a 2017 profile, Sacramento Bee columnist Erika D. Smith called Ellis “the most powerful, unelected person in California Democratic politics.”
An Interview With Ellis
GV Wire spoke with Ellis during her recent visit. This transcript has been lightly edited. You can listen to the full interview here.
GV Wire: How do you plan to restore honor to the chairship? Eric Bauman is the reason why we are here.
Ellis: I think there is a lot of work to be done in terms of restoring a lot of things, including faith, trust, integrity back into our party and I think that starts with not talking about those values, but living those values and demonstrating it not through words but through deeds. I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of really demonstrating, not just to delegates, not just to Democrats, but to the broader public that the Democratic Party is a party of integrity, a party of honesty, of transparency. A party that really values people.
GV Wire: What do you see are the top issues facing the party?
Ellis: The top priorities that I’m focused on over the next two years are, first and foremost, to deal very directly with the toxic culture that is rampant in this party. I have spent the better part of several months traveling up and down the state. I can tell you, unfortunately, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of people who have experienced abuse, bullying, harassment, retaliation at every level in this party. It is a culture that is a cancer and it needs to be rooted out. So dealing very directly with that and the culture change is priority number one.
Priority number two is to hold onto the electoral gains that we experienced last fall, and that includes some pickups here in the Central Valley, down in Orange County, expanding where we have the opportunity. I’m hoping we can take Congressional District 50; ensuring that we are prepared to welcome in this presidential primary, which is unlike any we’ve seen in at least a generation. And then finally I would say, of course, doing our part to take back the White House in 2020.
GV Wire: Gas prices are something affecting everybody in the state. While other people put the blame on the legislators and the taxes they’ve passed— namely the Democratic Party. What’s your take on gas prices?
Ellis: They’re too high. Just like rent and everything else. The cost of living is incredibly high and California is burdensome for the vast majority of people. We really need to look at ways to bring down the cost of living here in California and to make it more affordable for everyday people. We shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs in order to just keep the lights on and keep a roof over our head. We have to figure out a way to make the state more affordable so that people don’t have to just try to fight to survive but have an opportunity to thrive.
GV Wire: What do you do to lower gas prices? Do you roll back taxes?
Ellis: I think all options are on the table. I think we really need to look at the opportunity to really embrace the green new economy that I think California should be leading on, and look at ways of leveraging the diversity, the biodiversity and regional geographic diversity here in California for how we go about balancing things out in a better way.
GV Wire: High-speed rail is a big issue here in the Central Valley. What do you think of the line from Merced to Bakersfield? Is something you still support?
Ellis: I support it. I hope it happens. I think we need to again look at how do we do that in the quickest way possible, in the most efficient way possible and in the most cost-effective way possible. But those are the kinds of things that I think California should be leading on. We should be looking to other, not just states, but other countries to see how they have been able to bridge the geographies. It is something that I am looking forward to as someone who has traveled quite a bit up and down the state and a car, and I can tell you that certainly high-speed rail is something that I personally would appreciate and take advantage of.
When asked about the case of Fresno Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, Ellis said she didn’t have enough information to give a specific answer. (This interview occurred before Arambula was found not guilty of misdemeanor child abuse.)
GV Wire: In general, if any elected leader is found guilty of something, should they stay in office? Should they step down?
Ellis: If we have anyone, elected official or otherwise, who is found guilty of charges they should step down and resign from their position.
‘This is Why I’m the Best Candidate’
GV Wire: What makes you the best candidate for state party chair?
Ellis: The fact that the chair has to be the fundraiser-in-chief, raise the money to keep the lights on, and to run the operational and programmatic aspects of the party. The fact that as the leader of Emerge California, the statewide organization whose sole mission is to elect Democrats to office, I raised millions of dollars to help Democrats run for office and get elected.
The majority of that money was from individual donors who had never before given to the party. When you look at the fact that the chair of the party has to be the official spokesperson for all California Democrats, for all intents and purposes the face, the soul, the spirit of this organization, and have to be able to go on TV and articulate our values.
The chair of the party has to be the cheerleader-in-chief. She has to pick up her pom poms and travel up and down the state to rally the troops around our initiatives, our candidates, our values.
But I would argue that one of the things that really sets me apart from others is the fact that the chair of the California Democratic Party, which is the most diverse, largest, most influential state party in the country, has to be the inspirer-in-chief in these times we find ourselves. You have to be able to inspire people to do things that oftentimes they wouldn’t want to do.
That is why I’m the best candidate in this moment to lead the California Democratic Party.