By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s not just that Angelides comes off sometimes as too smart and too ambitious by half. He’s also earned a reputation as a pol prone to scorched-earth, by-any-means-necessary tactics. In short, a guy who will do anything to win. The press doesn’t think it’s a fair thing to talk about — as if one’s persona and image were out-of-bounds in analyzing American politics. Others are more candid.
“Angelides’ big Achilles’ heel is that he’s just plain disliked,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist and co-publisher of the nonpartisan political digest the Target Book. “The press doesn’t really like him. He wasn’t liked when he was party chair. And you’d be surprised to see how many people have not forgotten how he brought up abortion against Roberti.”
That Roberti reference is to Angelides’ first, and failed, run for treasurer, in 1994. His primary opponent was the former Democratic president pro tem of the state Senate, David Roberti. A committed reformer and strong consumer advocate, Roberti was a favorite of liberals. He was also a devout Catholic and, therefore, was a no vote on abortion-rights issues. Angelides, who wound up winning the primary and losing the general, didn’t flinch from running TV spots vaguely connecting the liberal Roberti to fundamentalist loonies who had murdered abortion doctors. Even within the usual margins and norms of negative campaigning, the Angelides spots were outlandishly sleazy. Especially because Roberti, as a state senator, had been targeted by a right-wing recall precisely because he had authored an assault-weapons ban.
At the time, Angelides had recently come off a stint as state Democratic Party chairman. And while many praise him for his disciplined leadership during the bonanza election year of ’92, Angelides left a trail of smarting enemies in his wake.
“Phil took over the party in what was really a coup, engineered by legislators who wanted him to replace Jerry Brown, who they felt had screwed things up,” said one former high-ranking state party official who now works for a Democratic politician. “And Phil’s style was dictatorial. He shut down the party’s southern state office. He banned longtime activists from party meetings. He steamrolled Mitch Fine, the other guy in the running for party chair. Fine, who was supported by Westly, by the way, was the more grass-roots candidate, with a lot of support from local Democratic clubs. Phil just sort of parachuted in and was the blunt instrument of the party machine.”
Angelides’ negatives are only one factor explaining why he’s not the slam-dunk he was supposed to be. Since Angelides had locked up early endorsements from the Democratic establishment — from DiFi, Barbara Boxer, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, most of organized labor — and with his solid fund-raising skills and connections, his supporters thought his nomination had a preordained aura of inevitability. But for most of the campaign, Angelides has been trailing, and currently, the contest is at best narrow and iffy for him. What difference does it make to have locked up all the party endorsements if the party doesn’t resonate directly with its putative members? On the contrary, Angelides’ systematic garnering of party endorsements might have branded him as too much of an insider to a public that views both parties with heaping suspicion and cynicism.
Forty-nine-year-old state Controller Steve Westly hurdled right over the top of Angelides — effectively bypassing all of the party machinery — by spending his own money on millions of dollars of early and effective TV-spot advertising. While until recently unknown by the general public — even as controller — Westly has been around the Democratic Party for more than two decades. But out of virtually nowhere, Westly made himself not only a contender but also, at least initially, the front-runner. All it took was a couple of million-high stacks of dollar bills.
Always perfectly pressed, his hair neatly parted, clothed meticulously but subtly, and armed with boyish good looks, an unruffled and cool attitude and an educational pedigree competitive with Angelides’ (he’s a former Stanford student-body president), Westly isn’t at all shy about relying on his polished persona as one of his most formidable weapons.
At that Democratic State Convention, Westly systematically cruised for two solid days, shaking hands, patting backs and earnestly conversing with and listening to any and all comers. He seemed to bask in the quiet self-confidence of a man who knows he’s got an alluring and disarming personality. Nor is Westly shy about exploiting a more with-it, even hip high-tech Silicon Valley image. Prone to hyping his success with eBay as a feat that “changed the world,” as he said last week on the steps of L.A. City Hall, he sometimes gives the impression that he’d like to present himself as the smooth-and-fast-as-lightning futuristic broadband candidate compared to an obsolete dial-up Angelides.
Westly’s favorite campaign one-liner, “I’m the only candidate who can beat Arnold Schwarzenegger,” has clear ideological overtones, implying that Westly’s less partisan, more moderate positioning as a “common-sense, pragmatic problem solver” has broader appeal than Angelides’ ultra-Democratic pitch. But Westly’s one-liner also carries another, more indirect but implicit message. Something like, “Hey, I’m the one who is likable and appealing, and the other guy isn’t.”