LOS ANGELES -- The California Democratic Party has staked its brand and platform on principles of diversity, equality and inclusion in the era of Trump and the #MeToo movement.
But now the party is grappling with a credibility crisis after it was hit with multiple lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and workplace retaliation by its former leader. And with a crucial election year approaching, some within the party worry that the legal troubles could hurt efforts to raise money and inspire volunteers.
While Democrats nationwide have focused on issues of sexual misconduct and workplace bias, the state party now faces allegations that its leaders failed to address problems within their own ranks.
The concerns have sparked a push for new reforms and to better understand what went wrong.
"It's an existential decision that we are making that we are going to live our values, that we are going to insist that our new leadership have accountability," said Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chair of the state party's Women's Caucus. "I wouldn't even call it a choice, because I don't think we have a choice."
"I think a lot of activists have lost faith," added Bill Wong, who directs political strategy for the Democratic caucus of the state Assembly. "There's a lot of frustration out there. I think where everybody's at is trying to figure out how to earn back the trust of our base and the staff and rebuild the party."
Democrats had barely finished their victory lap after historic midterm wins when state party Chairman Eric Bauman resigned in November following multiple allegations of misconduct. Three lawsuits have since been filed by current and former employees and an activist that claim the party turned a blind eye to allegations against Bauman, including that he discriminated against a high-ranking black female employee and sexually harassed or assaulted others.
An attorney for Bauman said he denies the claims in the lawsuits and "will not be trying his case in the media," and the state party declined to comment on pending litigation. But Pelosi and others say it threatens to undermine the organization's progressive mission.
In the first of the lawsuits, filed in January, three current and former employees alleged that Bauman's misconduct was "well-known and apparently tolerated" by top party officials. The second suit claims the party "looked the other way" due to Bauman's success in winning campaigns. And the third alleges the party fired two employees in retaliation for helping a colleague file a harassment complaint against Bauman.
The recent events have prompted a discussion within the party about what some call its toxic culture as the organization gears up to welcome more than a dozen presidential candidates and elect a new chair at its convention in San Francisco at the end of the month.