It is difficult to overstate the vise grip that special-interest money holds in California, where state lawmakers exert control over the world’s fifth-largest economy, and represent nearly 12 percent of the country’s population. Special interest groups spent over $91 million to influence state politicians in just one three-month period in 2017.

These donations are lavished on Democrats and Republicans alike, but there are two key differences: Democrats’ acceptance of this money arguably runs counter to the values of their party, and the state legislature’s Democratic supermajority leaves the party’s industry donors with unique power to make or break legislation.

It’s why progressive members of the California Democratic Party’s executive board forced a special meeting on October 24 to decide whether the state party should stop accepting money from fossil fuel and law enforcement interests. But during a tense four-hour discussion, the party’s five state-wide officers chose to table a vote on the matter and refer it back to a newly-formed committee, whose members were appointed by these same officers.

The move is prompting fears that party leadership will ultimately renege on previous committees’ recommendations to stop accepting donations from these powerful and divisive groups. Party chair Rusty Hicks, for example, has accepted contributions from Sempra Energy on behalf of the California Democratic Party — even though he has conceded that this money has a “corrosive effect,” according to progressive caucus chair Amar Shergill, and accepted a previous committee’s report urging a moratorium on fossil fuel money.

The proposed policy would have exclusively addressed California Democratic Party fundraising — it wouldn’t have stopped individual politicians from accepting fossil fuel or law enforcement money. A 2018 Cal Matters article noted that after the state Democratic Party stopped accepting money from the oil industry (a much narrower category than fossil fuels) in 2016, petroleum donations kept flowing to Democrats.

Still, those interviewed believe that a party-wide moratorium on these donations would work toward changing the culture around such contributions. According to executive board member Sean Dugar, the Democratic Party’s current stance gives legislators ample cover to continue accepting police and fossil fuels cash for their campaigns.

On the other hand, as Sunrise Movement activist Josiah Edwards told The Daily Poster, a no vote would have provided a “foundation and pathway for us to achieve a win by which nobody could get an endorsement from the California Democratic Party unless they were no longer accepting fossil fuel money.”

Meeting participants who spoke to The Daily Poster said party leaders were guilty of twin hypocrisies for refusing to move forward on limiting those donations: foot-shuffling in the face of a warming planet, and broken promises after mass protests against police brutality in 2020, during which many politicians, terrified of insurrection, promised major changes to policing.

“Rusty Hicks is engaging in predatory delay,” said RL Miller, an executive board delegate and DNC member who helped force the special meeting. That delay, she added, is “enabling the status quo to continue in the name of profit.”

“We’re Good At Giving Lip Service”

The California Democratic Party’s deep ideological fissures on display at the special meeting on police and fossil fuel donations had been widening for some time. Shergill said that Hicks, the party chair, “was not a good-faith partner... he initially said that we should go through the party processes and build consensus [on this issue]. But when we did that, he ignored it.”

Shergill pointed to a failed 2020 bill aiming to create “setbacks,” or buffer zones, between fossil fuel infrastructure and surrounding communities as an example of the undue influence that special-interest money can engender. “​​We are behind Texas when it comes to setbacks — and we couldn’t get that bill out of committee,” he said. “We are still fracking. We're still issuing licenses to allow us to pull fossil fuels out of the ground.” (Gov. Gavin Newsom recently proposed a regulation enacting such setbacks, with pushback from the fossil fuel industry expected.)

Dugar added that the state party has long been reluctant to cease accepting law enforcement donations, even though that money has a clear impact on police reforms. “I've been doing advocacy around police issues for twenty years,” he said. “I've seen more bills than I can count… be defeated or watered down to the point of being more ceremonial by legislators who receive large contributions from police associations.”

Last year, after protests over police killings like that of George Floyd in Minneapolis,  Andres Guardado in Los Angeles, and Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo, California lawmakers authored bills that would have established a decertification process for officers who engaged in misconduct, clarified officers’ duty to intervene in excessive force cases, and opened up more police records to the public — but they all failed. The certification bill was  signed into law, but in a significantly diluted form, thanks to police union lobbying.

In early 2020, Miller participated in a committee that recommended the party stop accepting fossil fuel money; that report was adopted by Hicks at an executive board meeting in March 2020. Separately, in August 2020, the party’s finance committee unanimously recommended halting law enforcement contributions. Party rules, Shergill said, mandated an executive board vote on the matter; instead, Hicks denied the request.

The events of the August meeting prompted 50 executive board members to call the October 24 special meeting in order to force a vote on both questions. But at the meeting, party officers simply paused on accepting such donations while the matter was subjected to further analysis by its new “Joint Sub-Committee on Party Finance,” which had been announced by the officers two days prior. The new sub-committee’s report is due in February 2022. When a delegate at the meeting suggested that the new sub-committee should include members nominated by the other caucuses, instead of just party officers, she was ruled out of order.

“We don’t have anyone on that committee that’s truly on the petitioners’ side,” said Tonya Love, an executive board member representing Oakland. “It makes it hard for me to have confidence that the members are actually in support of a ban on law enforcement and fossil fuel dollars. I have a feeling that come February, we’re gonna have this debate again.”

At the special meeting, party officers touted the formation of a new anti-racism working group. But when Love, who had helped recruit Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza to give testimony at the event, tried to speak about the special-interest donations, she was cut off.

Looking back at the meeting, Love called the proceedings “performative allyship.”

“We’re a party that says it stands up for black lives,” Dugar told The Daily Poster. “But the proof is in the pudding. And right now, our party continues to not live up to that reality. We’re good at giving lip service. We're good at talking about it. We're good at having committees to think about it. But ultimately, all the power in our party [lies with] one person. And that’s the chair.”

Ties To Police And Fossil Fuels

Given his employment and political history, Hicks’ refusal to play ball with the progressive wing of the California Democratic Party is not wholly surprising. Miller told The Daily Poster that she first met Hicks in 2013, when they were on opposite sides of a proposed fracking moratorium in Carson, a historically black and highly polluted city in South LA. At the time, Hicks was political director of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, which lobbied against the moratorium for employment-related reasons that some Carson city council members found disingenuous.

Hicks went on to serve as president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, a powerful organization of 300-plus unions that includes progressive upstarts like Unite Here and United Teachers Los Angeles, as well as more traditional unions representing the building trades.

The LA Fed, as it is known locally, also includes police associations, an increasingly contentious arrangement. Since February of this year, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has been holding weekly protests calling for law enforcement unions to be ejected from the federation and disbanded. Co-founder Melina Abdullah recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the LA Fed executive board on the platform of decoupling police associations from organized labor.

When Hicks won his race for California Democratic Party Chair in 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported that some party insiders were relieved at his victory over progressive opponent Kimberly Ellis, owing to worries that Ellis “would further limit corporate donors or ban them altogether.”

So far, during his tenure as chair, Hicks has accepted $330,000 from Sempra Energy, the California company that owns SoCal Gas. The utility is widely reviled in Southern California for its culpability in the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak, considered be the single worst natural gas leak in the country’s history.

Sempra’s donations to the Democratic Party included $160,000 in two installments on October 14, 2020, seven months after Hicks approved the party’s initial recommendation to stop taking fossil fuel money. These payments appear to contradict a statement made at the recent special board meeting by California Democratic Party vice chair Betty Yee that the party “has not solicited or accepted fossil fuel contributions

When asked about this apparent contradiction and other matters, the California Democratic Party’s communications director Shery Yang responded that the party “is now engaged in a strategic, comprehensive & timely process to ensure we fund the important work of empowering and uplifting 10 million California Democrats in line with the values enshrined in our party’s platform.” Yang did not address specific questions.

One of the stated goals for the new finance sub-committee, according to an email from party officers reviewed by The Daily Poster, is to “provide a plan for backfilling the historic contributions from those categories on [the party’s]’s prohibited contributions list.” Thanks to language like this, Miller is worried that the party will invoke financial concerns to justify continuing to accept such donations, despite the fact that the party hasn’t received money from police or fossil fuel interests in months.

In fact, a replacement funding source may have already been available if party leadership had been willing to act on it.

Earlier this year, according to two sources who asked to remain anonymous, Hicks was connected with a renewable energy entrepreneur who was interested in giving a large sum of money to the Democratic party. According to the sources, Hicks never reached out to the potential funder. Hicks has not responded to requests for comment.

“We Can’t Breathe”

As the special meeting on police and fossil fuel donations transpired online, a bomb cyclone hit Northern California, leaving intersections flooded and trucks overturned.

The irony of this sort of climate disaster taking place while party officials were refusing to commit to stop taking fossil fuel money wasn’t lost on Edwards, who was outside Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento, protesting with fellow Sunrise Movement activists. As he put it, ”We had endured over three hours of torrential rain and watched as folks in their homes — comfortable, warm and safe — voted against our futures.”

Edwards, who is 21, is also a member of Black Lives Matter LA, and he sees the two funding issues as intimately connected. Growing up in Carson, he attended school a couple miles away from a massive oil refinery. Ambient pollution, he said, gave him, his father, and his brother asthma.

“When we say we can’t breathe,” he told The Daily Poster, “it’s not just because of the boots of officers on our necks. It's also a reflection of the systemic racism that enabled our suffering at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.” Edwards’ state assembly member, Democrat Mike Gipson, is a former police officer notorious amongst progressives for the large donations he receives from both law enforcement associations and the fossil fuel industry.

During their allotted speaking time at the October 24 meeting, Sunrise activists chose to sing “Which Side Are You On,” a classic union ballad.

“It’s exactly how we felt,” Edwards said. “This was a moment for the Democratic Party and its leadership to decide whether or not they were on the side of working people, of black and brown folks, of young people and future generations — or whether they didn’t care and would rather continue to accept the money of fossil fuel and law enforcement and the interests of corporate influence in our politics. And they demonstrated to us exactly what side they’re on.”

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