Fight for Democratic endorsement fosters alliances, embitters rivals

Critics of party rules blame incumbents for undue influence.

By Max Taves / Special to the Times

As the race for the 41st Assembly District seat nears the finish line, details of intraparty fighting have surfaced, leading some to charge that incumbents have too much influence over delegates.

Approximately 45 delegates met at the beginning of April in Camarillo at a pre-endorsement caucus to decide in a roll-call vote whom would effectively win the Democratic endorsement in the 41st Assembly District. The district runs along the coast from Santa Monica to Oxnard and along the Valley from Westlake Village to Encino.

District rules require that a candidate needs at least 70 percent of delegates’ votes to win. The winning candidate is placed on a consent calendar, and their endorsement is virtually assured at the Sacramento party convention.

Julia Brownley, the current president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, won more than 70 percent of the votes and supporters expected that the fight was over.

But when five delegates unexpectedly took advantage of a district rule, they set off a scramble for the party’s endorsement. In formal letters, the five delegates, who are supporters of candidates Barry Groveman and Kelly Hayes-Raitt, requested that Brownley be taken off the consent calendar even though she won the pre-endorsement caucus. In effect, the party’s endorsement was still in play.

Delegates and, in some cases, their representatives or proxies, fought their next battle in Sacramento in late April at the Democratic Party’s convention. Impassioned speeches seemed to harden the fault lines that divided delegates.

But in a twist, Brownley competitor and Assembly candidate Shawn Casey O’Brien defended Brownley’s pre-endorsement win and lambasted the intraparty feud.

“This offended my democratic sensibilities. Brownley won fair and square. Let it be!,” O’Brien said after the convention.

Brownley eventually won the Democratic Party’s endorsement, capturing nearly 80 percent of the delegates’ votes. However, her win has not stopped the frustration.

Brownley’s competitors and detractors argue that her win reflects the power of the district’s incumbents over the endorsement process, not Brownley’s popularity.

According to Democratic Party rules, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl and state Assemblymember Fran Pavley can choose six delegates each. Kuehl and Pavley have endorsed Brownley. Six more delegates are elected by district Democrats. And the two dozen other delegates are chosen by county committees and district clubs.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a community activist and candidate, downplayed the significance of the Democratic endorsement but inveighed against the incumbent’s influence.

“The deck was already stacked by the current elected officials. They stacked the committee,” Hayes-Raitt said. “The real endorsement will be what Democratic voters decide in June.”

Barry Groveman, a Calabasas city councilmember and candidate, decried the district’s rules and charged incumbents with interfering in the process.

“My people who were going to vote for me were removed. It’s all inside baseball,” he said.

In a recent interview with The Malibu Times, Mary Sue Maurer, a former delegate of Pavley and current Calabasas city councilmember, said her support for Groveman jeopardized her position as a delegate. Maurer worked as a staff member for Pavley for five years beginning in 2000, but she disagreed with Pavley over who should succeed her.

“People should know that this process is flawed. The endorsement to the Democratic Party can be removed at the whim of elected officials if they [delegates] do not support the elected official’s candidate,” Maurer said.

Pavley’s press secretary, Joshua Townsend, defended the delegate selection process. He said Pavley and her chief of staff rotate delegates yearly and do not try to influence their votes.

“We try to pick people who represent the district the best,” Townsend said. “It’s a very unbiased selection process.”

Kathy Wisnicki, the vice president of SMMUSD and a Brownley supporter, was selected by Sen. Kuehl to be a delegate. Wisnicki said Kuehl gave recommendations to delegates for whom to vote, but left them free to support anyone.

More than two-thirds of the district’s delegates are not selected by incumbents. Ralph Erickson, president of the Malibu Democratic Club, is one such delegate. He said Brownley’s competitors have exaggerated the influence of the incumbents.

“Incumbents can only control 12 votes and the rest of the delegates are not beholden to anyone,” he said.

Despite Brownley’s endorsement, the race remains one of the most competitive statewide.

Five candidates will be on the Democratic primary ballot on June 6. Groveman has self-financed half of his campaign, and he leads with twice the funding than nearest rivals Brownley and Jonathan Levey, a professor and lawyer.

He has also consistently outspent his competitors. Groveman is the only candidate to air television advertisements and to hire paid election fieldworkers.

Hayes-Raitt and O’Brien were the only candidates to accept spending limits.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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