California Democratic Party race roiled by rumors of inappropriate behavior

File: Eric Bauman (R) speaks onstage during the Yes on Prop 62 Coalition Announcement at Los Angeles Grand Park on July 14, 2016.
File: Eric Bauman (R) speaks onstage during the Yes on Prop 62 Coalition Announcement at Los Angeles Grand Park on July 14, 2016.
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Yes on Prop 62

A front-runner in the race to lead California's Democratic Party, state party vice chair Eric Bauman, says that he's investigating false rumors about him that his campaign staff got wind of.

Sunday, Bauman revealed he's the target of rumors about inappropriate relations with teenage boys. He said his phone-banking staff was asked about it by a handful of Democratic party delegates, but that the source of the rumor is unknown.

"Is it possible that it comes from people connected to a campaign? It is possible," Bauman told KPCC. "Is it possible it just comes from a nutjob who doesn't like me and who is hoping to, you know, end my political career? That is possible also."

Bauman has been chair of the Los Angeles Democratic Party for 16 years, as well as a senior adviser to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

His chief opponent in the race to the lead the state party, activist Kimberly Ellis, denounced the rumors as well. She said she was shocked and saddened and called the rumors "despicable" and a "cruel maligning of someone's character."

Details are vague and no one has pinpointed the source of the salacious claims. But they've added unexpected drama to a little-watched contest that was shaping up as a duel between Bernie Sanders loyalists and the party's establishment wing.

The allegations were raised in an email Sunday sent to thousands of state Democrats who will pick the next party chair at a May 20 convention.

Bauman wrote that supporters making phone calls on his behalf last week heard from "some delegates" that he has been "engaging in inappropriate behavior with 14- and 16-year-old boys."

Bauman secured early endorsements from elected officials and was long viewed as the front-runner of the largely two-person race. But it's become a tight contest since nurses and other Sanders supporters lined up behind Ellis, the former director of a Bay Area organization that works to elect Democratic women.

Bauman has come under pressure for work his political consulting firm has done for corporate clients. Pharmaceutical companies paid the firm to work in opposition to a ballot measure that would have prohibited the state from paying more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The measure, which Sanders supported and campaign for, failed after drug companies spent more than $100 million in opposition.

The work has touched a nerve with many some Democratic activists a time when some of the party's biggest stars, including Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are focused on curtailing the role of money in politics and the power of corporations.

Sanders loyalists flexed their political muscle in January when they showed up in force at local elections for over 1,100 party delegate slots, sending a number of nurses and other progressive activists to the convention.