Tomas O'Grady was surprised to learn that the interview committee for the Stonewall Democratic Club was planning to endorse him for city councilman in Council District 4. He had, in his mind, been honest and blunt throughout the 45-minute interview.
"I was thrilled," says O'Grady, in his charming Irish brogue. An outsider and first-time candidate running against incumbent Tom LaBonge, O'Grady had gained admiration for his years of work on community issues in Los Feliz. But getting Stonewall's endorsement was no small feat.
He brought his daughter with him to see what he assumed would be his endorsement. The packed meeting hall included a veritable who's who of the L.A. political elite: Congresswoman Maxine Waters, City Council members Jan Perry and Bernard Parks et al.
The interview committee made its recommendation, and a few people got up to make speeches for and against. A hush fell over the room as the last speaker rose. It was Eric Bauman, former president of the Stonewall Democrats, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, vice chair of the California Democratic Party, and senior adviser to Speaker of the Assembly John Pérez.
Of all the dignitaries in the room, it was Bauman, the powerful boss of the countywide Democratic Party, who commanded the most attention.
Bauman's speech was tinged with anger. He was shocked that Stonewall — his club, for Bauman is its former president and in many ways still controls it — would even consider endorsing anyone other than sitting City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
"We don't kick incumbents to the curb," he said plainly, according to O'Grady.
Bauman says that's untrue — that he never used LaBonge's incumbency to shut out O'Grady, a strong new face in city politics. But people present at the meeting say it's not so.
Some in the room accuse him of intimidating Democratic Party Club members. Bauman denies doing this as well — at least on purpose. He is, after all, intimidating before he opens his mouth, looking as he does like some stock character from The Sopranos, from his solid, stocky frame and long overcoat right down to his gold pinky ring and gruff East Coast accent.
When he talks to you, he has the disturbing habit of staring coldly into your eyes.
"I don't have to use intimidation," he says, "because I am really good at being persuasive."
In his speech, he said O'Grady ought to "wait his turn" and that LaBonge should be allowed to "serve out the rest of his term." As if once a City Councilman gets elected he automatically serves for 12 years. As if elections were mere formalities.
Sure enough, the Democratic Club endorsed LaBonge.
"The message was loud and clear: 'We're going with the incumbent,' " says O'Grady. "And Eric Bauman was the enforcer. He told the room what to do."
But six weeks later, the weakened LaBonge, seen by many in Los Feliz and Hollywood as an ineffectual cheerleader, all speeches and no ideas, sweated out Election Night when O'Grady — without any big-name Democratic Party endorsements or big money backing — won an unexpected 31 percent of the vote in a three-way race. LaBonge managed to hang on and avoid a runoff by pulling in 54 percent. Bicycle advocate Stephen Box took 14 percent.
It seems both unlikely and almost inevitable that Bauman, a former trauma nurse, a gay Jew from the Bronx, would rise to such a position of power in Los Angeles — power that Bauman uses with what some might call reckless abandon.
No local Democratic Party Club is too small, no race too minor, for Bauman to involve himself, whether a school board race in Antelope Valley, a City Council battle in West Hollywood or the primary for Los Angeles mayor, still more than a year away.
Last month, his partner of nearly 29 years, Michael Andraychak, hosted an event for Wendy Greuel, a candidate for L.A. mayor in 2013, at their home in North Hollywood.
Again, Bauman pleads innocent, insisting that the event at his house wasn't his. He hasn't endorsed Greuel and he counts both Greuel and Eric Garcetti, also running for mayor, as good friends.
"He's a hard-driving, Machiavellian powerhouse, a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician," says Ryan Gierach, publisher and editor of WeHo News, the scrappy online site that covers West Hollywood. "He knows where all the bodies are buried because he buried them."
The Stonewall Democratic Club was founded in 1975 by Morris Kight, who also founded just about everything else gay and institutional in Los Angeles (the late Tracy Sypert, former news editor of Frontiers magazine, once joked that Kight "invented homosexuality"). Stonewall was the political arm of the gay-rights movement in L.A., a way to promote gay rights and to back gay-friendly candidates. Bauman, who moved to Los Angeles the year Stonewall was founded, eventually rose to the top of its leadership.
"He basically decided he was gonna be a big shot in California politics," says Miki Jackson, an LGBT activist, president of the Hollywood Highlands democratic club and herself a well-known player in the Stonewall movement.
But rifts soon developed. In 1999, with a push from Bauman, the Stonewall Democrats endorsed Gray Davis for governor, despite the fact that his positions on gay issues were the safest of all the Democratic candidates. Bauman angered many members, like Jackson, who felt the L.A. County Democratic Club was selling out.
"The whole nature of the club transformed," says Jackson, a gay woman, who left Stonewall soon after. "We went from being this little grassroots democratic club that put gay and lesbian issues ahead of everything to being this organ of the Democratic Party."
Davis won the election. Six months later, he hired Bauman as his special assistant.
"Just a coincidence, I'm sure," says Jackson dryly.
Jackson's public and somewhat personal feud with Bauman has, strangely, stood the test of time. In March, she got a threatening letter from the L.A. County Democratic Party's lawyer, demanding that Jackson "cease and desist" from her "unlawful use of the name of the Democratic Party" in her club, which was founded in the 1930s and has counted Ronald Reagan and Upton Sinclair as members.
Such a letter could only have been sent if Bauman had ordered it.
"I doubt that what they were saying was true or enforceable," says Jackson, noting that Bauman seemed to forget about the First Amendment. "I asked a couple of attorneys and they just started laughing."
She posted a blog item that colorfully mocked Bauman, and jokingly changing the name of her group to the "Hollywood Highlands democratic club," small d, small c. This, oddly, satisfied the picayune elements that seem to drive Bauman, who considers the name change official and the matter settled.
"He's a bully," Jackson says. "Anytime you call a bully's bluff, what do they do? They fold. Vintage Eric Bauman."
"They are a very peculiar group of people who have a very strange and angry agenda," Bauman responds. "The truth of the matter is, they're a distraction."
Perhaps Bauman has good reason to feel a sense of ownership over the words "Los Angeles" and "Democratic."
"I turned the L.A. Democratic Party from a $50,000-a-year organization into a $1.5 million–a-year organization," he says.
The party is a rising force in Los Angeles City Hall politics even though races for City Council, controller, mayor and city attorney are legally nonpartisan, meaning candidates are forbidden from listing any party affiliation on the ballot.
But Bauman has been unabashedly eroding that law every chance he gets.
He inserts the Democratic Party into city races through a blizzard of glossy mailers delivered to voters' mailboxes — helping ensure that five Democratic ex-assemblymen now hold City Council seats; these are the same people who carry with them the highly partisan habits of their peers in Sacramento.
Bauman has helped push the City Council, controlled by Democrats for decades, further to the heart of establishment Democratic orthodoxy — no independent thinkers allowed.
Now Bauman is at it again, trying to prevent the election on Jan. 17 of LAPD officer Joe Buscaino of San Pedro to the City Council.
Like O'Grady, Buscaino, a new face in politics, is not a party insider. So Bauman is using Democratic Party muscle to elect the forgettable Warren Furutani, a lifelong pol from Gardena best remembered by some for presiding over the greatest decline in Los Angeles Unified School Districts schools — a 12-year period when he sat as a less-than-inspiring member of the LAUSD Board of Education.
"It's important that they remain nonpartisan," says political consultant John Thomas, who worked for O'Grady's campaign. "We're talking potholes and infrastructure, not abortion and gay marriage."
Bauman, of course, disagrees.
"No office is nonpartisan," he says flatly.
But Bauman's job isn't just to make sure Democrats get elected — it's to make sure the right Democrats get elected.
"The sad thing about what's happened," says Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff to his father, L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks, "is that the Democratic Party and labor have merged themselves to the point where you can't be a Democrat if you don't support labor 100 percent."
In Councilman Parks' failed bid in the Los Angeles County Supervisor race against Mark Ridley-Thomas in 2008, the Democratic Party spent more than $342,000 supporting Ridley-Thomas and $65,000-plus attacking Parks — a solid Democrat — all because Parks had dared to question labor's hegemony in city government.
To Bauman (who chastised this reporter for getting his business cards from a non-union printer), that's how business is done now in Los Angeles: "Part of building successes in politics is, when you ask people to do stuff for you and they do it, you then have to support them."
That's why he got Stonewall to support the uninspiring LaBonge, and that's why he fights so hard to protect labor-friendly candidates against those not as friendly to labor: If you make someone a promise, you have to follow through at your end, or the next guy won't believe you.
Bauman is famous for meeting with almost anyone who's considering a run for office. He gives advice that is often blunt and helpful — but also asks unannounced candidates not to run at all, employing both the carrot and the stick. Bauman isn't above threatening them to stay out of the race. For example: "If you don't bow out, we're gonna spend $100,000 against your candidate in the mailbox," or, "If you ever want to have a political career in this town again ... "
Nor is he above the occasional promise. For example, "If you don't run, we'll take care of you." Machine politics at its finest.
"If anybody said that I went up to them and said, 'Don't run,' they're full of shit," Bauman insists. "I don't make promises or ask people to do things in a quid pro quo format. That would be against the law. I'm way too high-profile, way too visible a guy to do that."
He then adds: "Have I ever said, 'I will help you in a future race"? I'm sure I have. Have I ever said, 'I'll try to be helpful to you in your career in the future'? Sure."
Bauman's kingmaking doesn't necessarily make for good government — or a more livable Los Angeles.
The labor-friendly, almost entirely Democratic City Council has proven itself adept at handing out honorific certificates and making public declarations about corporate personhood and Arizona laws, but handles such issues as balancing the budget, crafting a coherent marijuana policy and maintaining the roads and water pipes with quite a bit less grace.
Bauman doesn't dispute this, admitting that Los Angeles today has "the most unstable, least productive and successful governance ever."
He blames not his own Democratic Party of Los Angeles County and its numerous choices for City Council, who have almost invariably won. He blames term limits.
Thanks to the musical chairs set off by term limits, as many as five Democratic state assemblymen are angling to jump to far higher-paying Los Angeles City Council spots — a jump in salary from the Legislature's $100,000 to the City Council's $178,789.
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The L.A. County Democratic Party and its labor allies will push lifelong establishment candidates like Furutani for each of these spots — Bauman's choices — and keep out outsiders with broad professional and personal backgrounds, like Tomas O'Grady.
"I'm a little disappointed that the Democratic Party, in particular, would be doing business like this," O'Grady says. "I thought the Democrats were the good guys."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Eric Bauman as a former trauma surgeon. He was a trauma nurse.