On the surface, Monday night’s election to replace Frank Barbaro as Orange County Democratic Party chairman will be nice and polite, featuring two longtime party regulars with good skills who most agree should be co-chairmen because they complement each other so well.
Jeff LaTourneau, 56, a labor activist, fundraiser and leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, is vying against Henry Vandermeir, 54, a longtime statewide campaign technocrat and executive director of the Orange County Democratic Foundation.
In fact, when they finished debating one another last week at the annual Orange County Young Democrats event at Original Mike's in downtown Santa Ana, LeTourneau and Vandermeir gave each other a big hug amidst the loud backdrop of karaoke music that to the chagrin of organizers dominated most of the debate.
Yet beneath the friendly karaoke cloud, there’s an intense battle for the leadership of Orange County’s Democratic Party.
Ironically, the heated election campaign to replace Barbaro began nearly a year ago at a similar Young Democrats event just outside the nearby restaurant Bistro 400, where Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, nearly came to blows with Barbaro over the latter’s support for Jordan Brandman, a moderate Democrat seeking a contested Anaheim City Council seat against OCEA-supported John Leos.
It took Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez to pull Berardino away from Barbaro that night.
The near fistfight mirrored a deep and continuing frustration among labor leaders like Berardino and Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, over the dominance of moderate candidates in Orange County’s Democratic Assembly delegation.
Brandman would eventually beat Leos in Anaheim with the help of Disney and Barbaro’s Victory Fund political action committee.
The battle between labor and Barbaro became even nastier in the race for the 69th Assembly District where Gebre’s political director, Julio Perez, ran for the seat against Orange County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly, a moderate Democrat and longtime Barbaro ally.
Daly won that race, beating Perez handily in the June primary. “I beat them on both Daly and Brandman,” Barbaro said.
But another June election, hardly noticed by most political observers at the time, triggered the end of Barbaro’s leadership of the party.
While both Berardino and Gebre say they are not supporting either candidate, it’s clear they have already cast their votes — for change.
Labor ran a host of activists for the central committee, winning 10 seats on the 59-member panel. The committee will vote for a new chairman Monday.
“There’s no question there’s been a great deal of tension between labor and the Democratic Party, locally and nationally, and there’s also no question that labor has been the primary financier of the party,” Berardino said. “So in order to ensure that the issues regarding working families are adequately addressed, labor was proactive in supporting worker-friendly candidates to the central committee.”
Said Gebre: “We finally started asking questions [such as] why are you [Barbaro] working as a clearinghouse for Disney,” referring to the political donations in Anaheim steered through the Victory Fund.
“We don’t intend to control the party,” said Gebre. “That wasn’t our plan. We just wanted to have a voice in there.”
Barbaro, who said he loves Berardino despite their differences but has a deep hatred of Gebre, said he didn’t look forward to a tough central committee battle. That to him was indication that it was time to retire.
“It was so difficult for me to balance commitments I had, friendships I had,” Barbaro said. “It was really hurting me to see friends facing off against friends. … It was very difficult for me to walk the line I’ve always walked.”
“It was probably time for me to get out,” he said.
Over last weekend’s vote to elect delegates to the state convention, which is key to future candidate endorsement battles, labor also turned out a wave of candidates with more than 200 people participating.
And in the 69th Assembly District, Barbaro lost election as a delegate. Perez came out as the top vote-getter.
While a shift may be underway and labor seemingly has a strong candidate in LaTourneau, both Berardino and Gebre say they are staying neutral in the chairman’s election.
For many Democrats it is a tough choice between the two well-qualified men.
“If you could combine these two guys, you would have everybody you need,” Barbaro said.
LaTourneau, who works primarily as a private investigator, comes right out of the labor movement with more than a decade as an organizer with the local hotel workers union.
LaTourneau said Monday’s election is “a huge opportunity to redefine what the Orange County Democratic Party is” and to “make it a home for the social justice movement.”
LaTourneau said he’s raised funds in the toughest environments around, leading the effort to gather more than $2 million for the Elections Committee of the County of Orange.
“I put a face on a neglected and brutalized community,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need here in Orange County with the [Democratic Party of Orange County].”
LaTourneau said he can also unite all the major factions in the party. “I get along with most folks. … I’m a good unifier,” he said.
“There have been people saying I’m running so that labor can take over the party and get rid of Tom [Daly] and Jordan [Brandman], right? Well, nothing could be further from the truth. My job as chair is to give full support for any Democratic office holder and fend off any attacks. That makes us stronger, not weaker,” LaTourneau said.
Vandermeir, with his wife, Lori, worked on the congressional campaign of Beth Krom, who is a statewide vice president of the National Organization for Women. He is seen as a capable technocrat who has spent years inside the Democratic Party’s machinery.
Vandermeir has said he would likely concentrate on much of the nuts and bolts of the party machinery, passionately talking about voter registration, computer models and the army of Democratic clubs throughout the state.
Acknowledging the rift between labor and the moderates, Vandermeir said he can unify the factions by “sitting down at the table and dialoguing. … That’s what's been missing. We speak to each other at a distance.”
Statewide Democratic Party officials are reportedly pushing Vandermeir, given his connections to the Orange County Democratic Foundation, a group established to facilitate fundraising for candidates.
The belief, according to those close to discussions, is that fundraising will be key to protecting the 65th Assembly District seat won in an upset this year by Fullerton Mayor Sharon Quirk Silva. That belief is making state officials keen on having Vandermier win.
Eric Bauman, who is vice chairman of the California Democratic Party and longtime chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party, is scheduled to oversee Monday night’s vote in Orange.
There was controversy last month when it was announced that the vote would be held on Jan. 28. The date was changed to Monday.
Orange County Democratic Party Executive Director Nick Anas said the December announcement was a clerical mistake and indicated that a thorough review of the party bylaws show a Monay vote is required.
LaTourneau supporters, who see their candidate gaining momentum, decried the scheduling of Monday’s vote as helpful to Vandermeir.
LaTourneau is also raising questions about Vandermeir’s connections to the Democratic Foundation, saying it’s impossible for him to serve both as executive director of the foundation and as chairman of the local party.
Vandemeir takes offense at LaTourneaus’ accusations, saying it’s probably best for the Democratic Foundation and Democratic Party to have the same person at the helm.
“As executive director, they [the foundation] have a board of 20 members. They make the endorsement decisions, they make the fundraising decisions. I’m simply an executive director that works for them,” Vandermeir said.
“Conflict is a very strong word. That’s a serious statement to make,” he said.
Correction: The name of Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. We regret the error.
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