Don’t expect the retirement of the head of California’s politically powerful nurses union after 32 years to distract the labor organization from its long-standing focus on single-payer health care — or its efforts to push the state Democratic Party further to the left.
RoseAnn DeMoro, who stepped down over the weekend, has long been grooming her second-in-command, Bonnie Castillo, to take the helm. The union’s supporters — as well as some detractors — say DeMoro has embedded her colorful antics and firebrand, rabble-rousing style in the DNA of the California Nurses Association.
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“We’re obviously going to miss her leadership; it was so unique. But, on the other hand, the program of the union and even its style won’t change,” said Michael Lighty, the union’s public policy director, who has worked with DeMoro since 1994.
The 69-year-old DeMoro isn’t known for her subtlety.
Under her leadership, the union helped derail Meg Whitman’s 2010 bid for governor, going so far as dressing up an actress asto mock the candidate at public appearances. The union’s umbrella group was accused of taking its cues from DeMoro and to promote its own agenda. And DeMoro’s steadfast of Vermont Sen. ‘ candidacy for president — the union also supported Ralph Nader over Al Gore in 2000 — ruffled the feathers of the Democratic establishment.
More recently, union members wearing their trademark red shirts have crowded legislative chambers, rallied and shouted down candidates at state Democratic conferences and events — all in support of California’s controversial single-payer legislation,, which remains in limbo after last year.
Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento who has been a longtime critic of the union, expects the gamesmanship to continue under Castillo, whom he described as DeMoro’s “Mini-Me.”
“I don’t see CNA veering from its long-standing practice of being the crazy aunt at the Thanksgiving table,” Maviglio told POLITICO. “The bomb-throwing tactics are inherent in the way they operate, even though it seldom results in any type of political or legislative success. Bonnie Castillo is cut from the same radical cloth as RoseAnn DeMoro.”
Castillo, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been with the state nurses union in various capacities since the mid-1990s. She differs from her predecessor in one major area: She is actually a registered nurse.
She worked as an RN in Sacramento and, in her roles at CNA, has pushed for regulatory reforms, including stronger protections for the spread of infectious disease, and directed the union’s disaster relief program. “Everywhere public health is at risk, the nurses will be there,” Castillo said in a statement released by the union. “And I will be with them. And we will continue to fight.”
DeMoro, a native of St. Louis who came to California to study sociology at UC Santa Barbara, cut her teeth as an organizer by first working for the Teamsters.
During her tenure, she has grown the nurses union from 17,000 members in 1992 to 100,000 in California with an additional 50,000 nationwide. CNA dominates its umbrella group, National Nurses United, which was formed in a 2009 merger of three unions; DeMoro stepped down as head of NNU over the weekend as well.
Despite growth and other achievements for nurses, however, the California union’s political track record has been spotty at best, with failures in its support of presidential candidates, a 2016 California ballot measure to control drug prices, and single-payer.
It was among a coalition of groups that opposed a universal health plan in 2007 from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger based on the Massachusetts law that also served as a model for Obamacare. There was no love lost between the nurses and the governor, who vetoed several single-payer bills and unsuccessfully sued in 2004 to stop his predecessor’s nurse-to-patient ratio law from going into effect.
DeMoro had beenfor at least the last nine months. She timed it to a weekend board meeting, and was as celebrated for her leadership and achievements.
She expressed regret over single-payer, and described her failure to achieve it in theas “my greatest failure.”
While single-payer remains in limbo, it has become a rallying point nationally for progressive Democrats.
Minnesota Rep.on Wednesday as the primary sponsor of the federal Medicare-for-all legislation, . The bill has support from a majority of House Democrats — and similar legislation in the Senate has received backing from presidential hopefuls — although it is not expected to be endorsed by party leaders, at least for now.
But it helps the party draw a clear line between its goals on health care, and Republicans’.
Lighty, the California union’s public policy director, expects to continue to work with DeMoro as part of CNA’s effort to push for single-payer. Despite the lack of momentum for the state bill, he underscored that single-payer has become a key talking point of the Democrats running in the upcoming gubernatorial election and loomed large at last month’s California Democratic Party convention.
“Even though she’s not the executive of CNA and NNU, this issue is personal and she’s passionate about it,” he said.
While DeMoro has already packed up and left the union’s Oakland headquarters, she remains coy about her future: “This is the end of my journey as a professional rabble-rouser …Or is it? Stay tuned,” she said Tuesday in a, followed by the winking emoji.