Divided by questions of loyalty and the right to raise funds under the Democratic Party name, a gap has appeared between the leaders of the Tulare County Democratic Central Committee and members of the area’s three largest Democratic organizations.
The schism first became public earlier this month, when Ruben Macareno, chair of the publicly-elected TCDCC, issued a statement declaring the Visalia Democratic Club’s inaugural Roosevelt Gala fund-raiser planned for later in March, illegal under state election law. The event, the statement said, was not sanctioned by the TCDCC, which it says has the sole right to raise funds under the party banner. The actions of the VDC’s leadership, according to the statement, are also misdemeanor criminal violations of the California Election Code.
“The organizers (of the Roosevelt Gala) are in violation of state law which states that the only local entity to authorize a -political fund-raising event or activity for any party is the county’s party’s central committee,” the statement said. “TCDCC reserves the right to fund-raise. … Furthermore, the club (VDC), an established arm of the TCDCC, is currently being misused, as the TCDCC considers it an unsanctioned organization. …”
In an interview, Macareno restated the TCDCC’s position that it alone has the right to raise funds under the Democratic name in Tulare County.
“The county party feels it’s an illegal event,” he said.
Abigail Solis, president of VDC, denies any wrongdoing on the part of the event organizers. Event planning was well underway before the TCDCC’s objections were raised, and the committee was aware of its previous fund-raising efforts, she said.
“We’ve done things in the past. There have been no steps to follow, so we started planning,” Solis said. “We had never heard of that code (Election Code 20201, as cited in the TCDCC’s statement). The (California Democratic Party) said that’s not practiced.”
Once TCDCC’s objections were raised, the VDC made a formal request for sanction for its event.
“The event was initially to be sponsored by the Visalia Democrat Club,” said VDC vice president Susanne Gundy. “The Central Committee declined to endorse it.”
Cease-and-desist letters were issued to the organizers and sponsors of the event by the TCDCC, demanding the removal of any reference to the Democratic Party or its sponsorship. The objections were also forwarded to State Treasurer John Chiang, who was to be the event’s keynote speaker.
“They contacted Chiang and raised a fuss about it,” said Gundy. “Unfortunately, the damage was done. Treasurer Chiang said he couldn’t attend. He (Macareno) essentially told the Treasurer not to come.”
Solis said Chiang’s office told her he did not wish to appear at the event because of any possible fallout.
“The Treasurer was worried about what would happen,” she said. “I was not surprised when I got the letter that said he would not come.”
The Roosevelt Gala, however, will go on. It is now planned as a fund-raiser for the newly-formed Tulare County Political Action Committee, a move made to avoid the possibility of any illegal use of the term “Democrat”, said Solis, who also heads the TCPAC.
“It may well be the VDC has every right to hold this event,” she said. “We thought we’d be on the safe side.”
The TCDCC continues to maintain the fund-raiser is illegal, saying creation of the “fly-by-night” TCPAC is intended to subvert the Election Code requirements. In the TCDCC’s statement, Macareno refers to the event organizers as “a rogue group of people misleading citizens,” who are undermining the TCDCC’s ability to fund-raise.
“We have rules and regulations when it comes to political activities,” Macareno is quoted as saying in the TCDCC’s statement. “Despite the formation of this group’s PAC’s supposedly nonpartisan status, it is a vehicle that these individuals are using under the name of TCDCC’s unchartered Visalia Democratic Club.”
The disquiet among the party leadership is the result of “years of hurt feelings,” said Solis.
The VDC, which was until this year chartered by the TCDCC, was not granted official status in 2015. Gundy, who is also secretary of the Tulare Democratic Club and a former member of the TCDCC, said the TDC and the Young Democrats Club at the College of the Sequoias have also become embroiled in the controversy because of loyalty clauses the TCDCC required the three clubs to add to their bylaws, which they rejected.
“That language included kicking out any member that supported a non-Democratic candidate. It was very vague,” Solis said. “We felt a huge lack of communication from the chairman (Macareno). We felt like this committee wants to block other clubs from raising funds and being active.”
Gundy agreed with that sentiment.
“It’s not like we’re renegade Democrats,” she said. “The Central Committee seems to want to keep its finances close to its chest.”
Macareno, however, said the requirement was clear and not as demanding as described by detractors.
“We did make a charter revision that stated that during the election clubs have no non-Democratic candidates speak with the clubs,” he said. “We did tell these clubs if they wanted these candidates to speak, just hit the gavel (to adjourn the meeting).”
Hope for ‘true election’
Gundy also raised questions about how some members of the TCDCC gained their seats. While the positions are intended to be filled by a vote of party members, many of the seats have been filled by appointment due to a lack of candidates, she said. The next ballot for TCDCC membership will take place in 2016.
“We’re hoping we can have a true election, so people can vote for their committee,” Gundy said. “It’s sort of a sad situation, and it’s making our neighboring committees uncomfortable and the Democratic Party uncomfortable.”
The TCDCC now considers the VDC “an unsanctioned organization.” The VDC has since been sanctioned by the Kings County Democratic Central Committee, but will not lend its name to the Roosevelt Gala.
Despite that move, the TCDCC is still objecting to the event.
“He (Macareno) is still adamant. He sent letters to people who only posted on my Facebook,” Solis said. “It seems like he wants to threaten anyone who wants to attend our event.”
Solis said Macareno sent an email to many of the VDC’s members, stating the TCDCC would take over operation of the VDC.
“He said he would take over the club,” Solis said. “We’ll be reassuring our members we’ve done everything right.”
A timeline of events surrounding the controversy will be mailed to the VDC membership this week, she said.
Questions have also been raised at the state party level about changes to the TCDCC’s bylaws and the removal of some of its members, said Doug Kessler, a regional director for the California Democratic Party and a member of the VDC. Kessler’s region does not include Tulare County.
“For whatever reason, the TCDCC has decided to do some very strange things. It’s clearly led by Ruben (Macareno) and made some strange changes to the bylaws. He wants total loyalty and started kicking people off,” Kessler said. “It was a big, huge change, and pretty unreasonable.”
The state party has little control over the local central committees, Kessler said, however they are looking into the recent changes that have been made to TCDCC’s bylaws. The results of that investigation will be released shortly, he said.
“The state party doesn’t have much they can do to them. They’re an elected body unto themselves,” Kessler said. “We can say, ‘You’re acting stupidly or breaking the law.’”
Macareno is adamant the TCDCC’s bylaws have not been changed and that the state-level review only took place because members of the TCDCC who were removed called for the investigation.
“There were never any changes. The bylaws are as they were,” he said. “There are some issues with individuals being removed. It’s being reviewed, so I can’t comment on it.”
Lack of support
The divisive issues are not limited to finances and loyalty. Members of the various Democratic clubs feel the TCDCC has not done enough to promote party candidates locally, said Gundy, who feels the disquiet began there.
“The issue started essentially last year when the clubs wanted to have a booth at the Fair. The Central Committee said, ‘No, we’re not going to sponsor a booth.’ The clubs pooled their money and got a booth,” she said. “It came to a head. The clubs felt the Central Committee wasn’t doing all it could to support candidates.”
Following that, local Democrats decided to form the TCPAC to fund their efforts for increased voter turnout, registration and education. The Roosevelt Gala, though originally sponsored by the VDC, was given over to the TCPAC following the TCDCC’s objections. Increasing local participation in politics remains the two groups’ main goals, Solis said.
“The Roosevelt Gala came from that idea,” she said. “This would be the first big fund-raiser.”
Macareno said he believes the conflict stems from a lack of understanding of what the TCDCC can do to support candidates, one he called a “newbie standpoint.” He specifically cited Solis’s lack of previous involvement with local Democratic organizations, and said there was also a certain amount of personal upset following the failed congressional campaign of Susanne Aguilera-Marrero, who sought more financial and logistical support for her campaign than the TCDCC could provide.
“Apparently, that wasn’t enough,” Macareno said of the TCDCC’s efforts to support the campaign. “These are individuals who are upset with the turnout in general.”
Both sides of the disagreement agree the issue has taken on a personal note that has spilled into control of the party’s apparatus.
“It’s a matter of personalities,” said Gundy. “The TCDCC only, it seems, wants to restrict fund-raising to itself.”
“I think it is more personality than party politics,” he said. “That’s beyond my control.”
A replacement for Chiang as keynote speaker is being sought, and the event will still focus on honoring the work of local Democratic notables Loli Moheno and Joe Altschule.
“We’re actively seeking a new speaker,” said Gundy. “We’ll have one in a couple of days.”
The inaugural Roosevelt Gala is scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at the Visalia Convention Center.
Below is a press release sent out by the Tulare County Democratic Central Committee regarding the issue:
The Tulare County Democratic Party sent “cease” and “desist” letters to individuals who have been fundraising in the county under the Democratic umbrella without the authorization of the Tulare County Democratic Central Committee (TCDCC). The organizers of the Inaugural Roosevelt Gala set for March 28 at the Visalia Convention Center were sent letters demanding those individuals to discontinue the use of its Visalia Democratic Club (VDC) name, or the use of Democrat or Democratic in any name to promote and or solicit for that event or any other event.
The TCDCC Executive Committee claims the organizers recently established the Tulare County Political Action Committee (PAC) to dodge state law that requires local approval for the March 28 event. In the March newsletter of the Tulare Kings Hispanic Chamber of Commerce it states, “The Inaugural Roosevelt Gala is the first fundraiser conducted under the auspices of the Visalia Democratic Club’s newly formed PAC.” The newsletter also identifies former Congressional candidate Suzanna Aguilera-Marrero as a co-sponsor.
The organizers are in violation of state law which states that the only local entity to authorize a political fundraising event or activity for any party is the county’s party’s central committee. TCDCC reserves the right to fund raise to its chartered clubs, organizations and or individuals the committee works with. Furthermore the club, an established arm of the TCDCC, is currently being misused as the TCDCC considers it an unsanctioned organization until proper required documentation is submitted.
“The individuals we contacted via email, US Mail and those that support this activity have a disregard for what the state law mandates. We cannot have a rogue group of people misleading citizens, particularly Democrats, in regards to their unauthorized fundraising efforts,” said Democratic county chair Ruben Macareno. “We have rules and regulations to follow when it comes to political activities. Despite the formation of this group’s PAC’s supposedly non-partisan status, it is a vehicle that these individuals are using under the the name of TCDCC’s unchartered Visalia Democratic Club.”
Macareno is referring to Election Code 20201 which state, “It is unlawful for any person that includes in any part of its name the name of any political party to directly or indirectly solicit funds for any purpose whatsoever upon the representation either express or implied that the funds are being solicited for the use of that political party unless that person shall have previously obtained the written consent.” Macareno says that there was no authorization or credentials granted for that event or any other. In addition to being a civil wrong, such actions are also a misdemeanor pursuant to Elections Codes Section 18360.
The organizer’s $75 a plate “inaugural” Roosevelt dinner features keynote speaker State Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat; honorees attorney and newspaper columnist Joe Altschule and former county supervisor Lali Moheno.