CA Dems’ mega weapon: Shawnda Westly

Shawnda Westly on twitterEditor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series. Part two is here.

April 22, 2013

By John Hrabe

The second night of the 2013 state convention earlier this month, California Democrats shared the downtown convention center with two Sacramento-area high schools hosting their junior-senior proms. It was probably just a coincidence. However, there are parallels between the two celebrations.

Both gatherings represent the culmination of a year of hard work. The Democrats’ convention mantra, “We’re just getting started,” could easily describe high school seniors preparing for the next stage in their lives.

And there’s one final parallel: both parties are due in large part to the work of some talented organizers behind the scenes.

Unprecedented success

Democrats in California are basking in unprecedented successes.

In November, the party helped secure the reelection of President Barack Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It picked up its first supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature in more than a century. It added six freshmen from swing districts to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic caucus. All the while, passing Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s $6 billion-dollar tax increase, and defeating Proposition 32, which would have weakened unions’ political funding.

You don’t have to ask Democrats who gets the credit. Throughout the convention, delegates wore “Viva Burton” buttons to acknowledge the work of the party’s chairman.

“On every issue, at every turn, John Burton has been a force for solutions for our most pressing challenges,” Pelosi said in a minute-long homage to Burton during her Saturday convention speech to delegates. “We thank him, and I thank all of you, for all that you did in 2012 and before that for making California true blue California. Let’s hear it for our great state Chairman John Burton.”

But Burton, a media favorite due to his expletive-laden antics, couldn’t have done it without his right-hand woman, the party’s executive director, Shawnda Westly (pictured on the right of the above photo).

“She is the engine to the operation,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park, one of six congressional freshmen honored at the convention’s Saturday “Red to Blue” luncheon. “The party this year played a much larger role in congressional races than they have ever played before.”

That larger role in congressional races, according to Democrat campaign literature, included the party designing and printing 124 mail pieces, logging more than 3.7 million knocks and dials to reach voters, 50 party field staff hired to setup the infrastructure for “Get Out The Vote” programs, 5.1 million pieces of campaign mail in mailboxes, and 607 staff working party canvass programs.


Westly’s overpowering campaign onslaught wasn’t a stealth operation. In April 2012, she predicted the party would pick up seats, and even suggested the two-thirds super-majority was achievable. “We have a real chance to pick up a 2/3 majority in both the Senate and Assembly, CA will play a major role in the battle for the House — its [sic] not a question of if we will pick up seats, but of how many,” she wrote in an online election chat hosted by the Sacramento Bee. 

Much of the groundwork started a year prior. In an April 2011 piece for the influential progressive blog, Calitics, Westly described why Democrats’ success “was no happy accident.” Among Westly’s highlights: a 25 percent cut in the party’s monthly expenses, an online database for every county party, 12 training bootcamps around the state, a full-time bilingual communications director, and monthly organizing calls with statewide officials.

Westly’s confidence in 2012 was also due to the off-year ground work running voter registration programs targeted to minority voters in traditionally Republican strongholds. “Democrats in California spent the better part of 2011 expanding voter registration and increasing the likelihood that minority voters would turn out on election day,” she told the Bee in the 2012 live chat. “Between our It Gets Bluer Latino voter reg program and our Operation Game Changer program to convert poll voters to permanent vote by mail voters, we expect to continue to see gains for Democrats among these communities.”


Numbers don’t lie. In the past eight years, Democrats’ efforts are best reflected in two counties that moved from Republican ground to contested territory. In 2004, Ventura County served as the home district of conservative stalwart Rep. Tom McClintock and maintained a nearly 3 percentage-point Republican registration advantage. By 2012, it had turned to a Democratic county by 2 percentage points. The registration changes in Riverside County are even more startling. Since 2004, Republicans have lost a voter registration percentage point every year, dropping from a 12 percentage-point GOP edge in 2004 to just a 4 percentage-point advantage in 2012.

And the trend line shows no improvement for Riverside County’s Republicans, thanks to the state’s new online voter registration program, which took effect in January 2012. Capitol Weekly reports that, in Riverside County, “Democrats out-registered Republicans online by 46 percent to 27 percent.”

State Republicans credit Westly with the Democrats’ remarkable voter registration gains.

“President Obama might have won Texas with her help — if Shawnda wasn’t preoccupied with picking up a supermajority here in California,” said Ken Lopez-Maddox, a Republican who represented Orange County in the state Assembly. “Westly has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others.  She is honest in her motives and provides an example to all of us of what can be when we believe in something greater than ourselves.”

Part 2 is on how Shawnda Westly gets things done.

Tags assigned to this article:
DemocratsJohn BurtonJohn HrabeShawnda Westly

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