Shabbat vote at issue in contested election of observant Jew as California’s top Democrat
Morris “Fritz” Friedman needed help to vote in the election for chair of the California Democratic Party, which took place on May 20, a Saturday.
As an Orthodox Jew, Friedman was forbidden from picking up a pen during Shabbat. So he asked a convention volunteer, Sean Kiernan, to fill out his ballot and sign it for him, casting it for Eric Bauman.
Bauman has since declared victory by a narrow margin of 62 delegates among some 3,000. But now, Friedman’s vote is at the center of an effort to unseat Bauman, himself an observant Jew from Los Angeles.
In contesting the election over alleged voting irregularities, the campaign for Kimberly Ellis, Bauman’s opponent, pointed to Friedman’s ballot as an example of double voting. Ellis is refusing to concede despite calls from Democratic leaders, including the speaker of the State Assembly, to back down.
“We believe deeply that not only did we not lose by 62 votes, but that we won this election outright and pretty handily,” Ellis said in a June 7 interview with the podcast “Working Life.”
In a June 5 “ballot review” on the campaign website, Ellis alleges that the signature of an employee of the Kaufman Legal Group, the law firm representing Bauman, appeared on multiple ballots. Kaufman Legal Group later identified the employee as Kiernan, who aided Friedman with his vote.
Some pro-Israel Democrats seized on Ellis’ challenge of Friedman’s vote as the latest transgression of a campaign with a shaky record on Jews and Israel.
“In challenging mismatched signatures, Kimberly Ellis is effectively targeting Orthodox Jewish delegates,” a group called Democrats for Israel Los Angeles said in a statement posted on Facebook.
The group also pointed to a vocal Ellis supporter who posted a cartoon on Facebook last month featuring an Israeli flag with the Jewish Star of David replaced by a swastika.
But Bauman said the double voting accusation is more likely an example of unscrupulous electioneering by the Ellis campaign than animus toward Jews.
“They’re casting about, and they have no real evidence that anything is actually wrong,” he said.
“I don’t think the singling out of a couple of Orthodox Jewish men was, per se, anti-Semitic,” he said. “I think it was just that they were grasping for straws.”
Paul Kujawsky, like Friedman, is an Orthodox Jew and served as a delegate to the May 20 convention. He believes he and Friedman were the only two Orthodox Jews to vote in the election for party chair. He said that having a helper sign the ballot on his behalf is a well-established practice that he’s used many times when votes occur on Saturdays.
“It’s pretty clear that [the Ellis campaign] knew it was not an issue of double voting but claimed it was, anyway,” Kujawsky said. “So it’s not about anti-Semitism, but it is about integrity.”
Neither Ellis nor her campaign responded to repeated requests for comment.
The party has referred the matter to its Compliance Review Commission, a body that adjudicates internal disputes. But Ellis’ campaign hopes to put the election in the hands of an independent third party, fearing the California Democratic Party itself is unduly influenced by Bauman, according to its June 5 statement.
Bauman, a former union organizer, has headed the Los Angeles County Democratic Party since 2000 and served as vice chair of the state party since 2009. LA Weekly has called him a “powerful boss” and a “kingmaker,” while the Los Angeles Times named him a “consummate party insider.”
A self-identified Zionist, Bauman is a member of two Los Angeles-area synagogues, the Orthodox Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village and Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, a Conservative synagogue where he wraps tefillin on weekday mornings. He keeps a kosher home in North Hollywood with his husband.
Culturally and politically, Bauman and Ellis are about as different as two California Democrats can get.
Ellis headed Emerge California, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of women in elected office in California, from 2010 until this year, when she quit to focus on her run for party chair.
An African-American woman from the Bay Area, she attracted liberals disaffected with the party establishment, including many who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries, by pledging repeatedly to “redefine what it meant to be a Democrat.”
But before Ellis announced her run in August 2015, Bauman’s ascendance often was treated as a foregone conclusion. When friends wanted to draft her into the race, Ellis said in the June 7 “Working Life” interview, she told them, “That’s a preposterous idea and I’m not interested.”
Now, she claims to have won the election.
“Based on the information contained here, the actual vote count is in question,” her campaign said in a June 5 statement outlining the allegations. “It is believed that the wrong individual is serving as chair.”