Home » ‘Pay’ for an endorsement? L.A.’s Democratic clubs under scrutiny this election

‘Pay’ for an endorsement? L.A.’s Democratic clubs under scrutiny this election

For newcomers running for office in Los Angeles, support from some of the city’s many political clubs can provide an essential boost, with the groups calling prospective voters or hosting meet-and-greet events with the candidates.

The groups tend to draw little notice, except when a candidate touts their prized endorsement. But this election season, two incidents have brought scrutiny to the clubs, putting leaders on the defensive.

Last month, mayoral candidate Karen Bass suggested that rival Rick Caruso purchased the endorsement of Avance Democratic Club, a Latino group. “How much did you pay for it?” Bass said during a debate — a remark that angered the club’s leaders and prompted Bass to apologize.

Days later, a leaked audio recording of a meeting at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor included someone suggesting that the federation “buy” Democratic clubs. The comment was made during a conversation about broadening the labor federation’s political power.

The incident brought attention to clubs’ cutthroat and seemingly mysterious endorsement process, and their practice of charging for memberships, which can in turn confer the ability to participate in high-stakes endorsement votes.

Dozens of Democratic clubs in the Greater L.A. region are chartered under the L.A. County Democratic Party, with Stonewall Democratic Club and Los Angeles County Young Democrats among the better-known groups. The volunteer-run groups host events and may have hundreds of members.

Candidates can rally their allies to buy memberships or, in some cases, simply buy multiple memberships themselves ahead of an endorsement vote. They also can woo existing club members ahead of a vote.

Stonewall Democratic Club charges $25 per year for a membership, as does Avance. The San Pedro Democratic Club costs $15 per member and additional $10 for a family.

State Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), a candidate in the 37th Congressional District, gave Avance $250 — in 10 increments of $25 — this year, campaign spending records show. The candidate had sought the endorsement of Avance, but didn’t get it at the March 24 meeting.

Avance President Nilza Serrano said she didn’t have internal records to show when the money came in. A spokesperson for Kamlager didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment over several weeks about the purchases.

Jan Perry, who is running against Kamlager, is a member of several local Democratic clubs, including Avance, which has endorsed her.

She said she didn’t feel any pressure to bring in new members to the club this election season.

Sam Yebri, a first-time candidate running for the Council District 5 seat, which includes Fairfax, Cheviot Hills and Bel-Air, has the backing of Democrats for Israel Los Angeles, the Ethiopian Democratic Club of L.A. and the San Pedro Democratic Club — a group based in the Harbor region, miles from the Westside.

He said he did not seek to get people to join any of those clubs ahead of their endorsement vote.

To avoid “vote stacking” — under which one candidate floods a club with new members by writing a check — the Miracle Mile Democratic Club doesn’t allow a candidate to purchase more than five memberships, club President Mark Edwards said.

“Imagine if you join a Democratic club because you want to have your voice heard, but suddenly the whole endorsement process is influenced by stacking the ballots,” Edwards said.

Other clubs have different safeguards. At the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club, endorsements are issued solely by the 35-member board, rather than the whole body, said Melissa Grant, a vice president.

At Stonewall Democratic Club, new members can’t take part in a vote unless they have been a member for at least 56 days before an endorsement vote, as part of effort to prevent a candidate from flooding a campaign.

Avance allows new members to join just five days before a vote.

From the clubs’ point of view, the endorsement season is often akin to a yearly fundraiser, with money from memberships or sponsorship paying for events and other programs throughout he year.

It’s also common for clubs’ members to work for elected officials, creating long-standing relationships that some candidates believe can unfairly help incumbents seeking endorsements. At the same time, clubs often have long-standing relationships with politicians, because the politicians may regularly speak at club events.

It’s also common for club members to belong to unions, and candidates may be asked during the interview process what union supported them.

Yebri, the Westside council candidate, said, “It’s clear that institutional and establishment candidates have a fast track to receiving these and many other party endorsements” — a complaint other first-time candidates have made.

Candidates can also face unsavory proposals. One candidate, who asked for anonymity, described a club board member’s pitch this election season.

“The board member said, ‘I want to offer my consulting services, I will speak on your behalf. I will back-channel and I will guarantee you five or 10 votes. My consulting fees is $5,000,’” said the candidate, who declined the offer.

Suspicions about how L.A.’s Democratic clubs operate deepened last month when a leaked audio clip was posted on Reddit — a meeting separate from the infamous conversation with racist and disparaging comments, also posted on Reddit, among three Los Angeles City Council members and Ron Herrera, then president of the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

In the audio, an unidentified person talks with Herrera about expanding the federation’s political power. The conversation turns to Democratic clubs.

“The LGBT one, we need to buy them off,” the person says. At another point, the person mentions the Los Angeles County Young Democrats.

A federation spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about the recording.

Alex Mohajer, president of Stonewall Democratic Club, told The Times that he believes the person was referring to his LGBTQ club.

Jessica Maldonado, president of the Los Angeles County Young Democrats, said the group dismisses the “crude and dismissive characterization of LACYD’s endorsement process heard on the recording.”

“We work diligently every election cycle to ensure that our process is open, rigorous, and best reflects the views of our diverse membership,” Maldonado said.

Sean Rivas, president of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, an umbrella group of 27 clubs, said he was “very bothered” by the discussion heard in the audio.

“A lot of these clubs do a lot of great work and it just hurts the progress,” Rivas said.

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Enzo Smith