By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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“When people are voting for executive officers, it’s not really about 37-point plans,” said Garry South, Westly’s top campaign operative (and former top aide to Gray Davis), as we spoke before one of the other unwatched debates in Los Angeles. “It’s about a visceral connection. It’s ‘Is this someone you can trust and like?’ There’s a basic rule of thumb: If people don’t have a sense of who you are, they don’t really care what you think about any particular issue.”
By any account, Westly made much better use of his advertising than Angelides did in introducing himself to voters. “People didn’t know Steve Westly’s story,” South said. “Piece by piece we had to weave a narrative about the candidate. That’s more important than getting on TV to talk about the fine points of policy.”
Even off TV, Westly — clearly not as comfortable with detail as his opponent — eschews dwelling on those fine points. He’s given more to speaking in warmer, broader generalities. In the glare of TV lights and before large crowds, he can sometimes stumble — while Angelides never slips. And in those circumstances he can sometimes seem herky-jerky and create the momentary sensation that you just might be watching a real-life Bill McKay, Robert Redford’s pretty-boy character in The Candidate.
Ironically, while Westly owes his relatively favorable position in the race to television, he’s a much better candidate in smaller, more intimate, offscreen events. When I accompanied him last week as he campaigned in Los Angeles, I saw a loose, free-flying and invigorated candidate who, refreshingly, departed from his usual more cautious, moderated posturing. For a few minutes, it seemed we were back in the world of old-fashioned one-on-one politics and delightfully distant from the cold starkness of electronic campaigning.
Taking the pulpit at St. Andrew’s Baptist Church in Jefferson Park to address a candidates’ forum organized by a conference of African-American Baptist ministers, Westly seemed absolutely at home and at ease. No more pauses or hesitations, no verbal stumbles. He also put Garry South’s nostrum of personal story over policy wonkishness perfectly into practice.
During his emotional address, purposefully delivered with just a suggestion of Sunday-morning singsong, Westly touched on all the predictable Democratic talking points — from expanded health care to more access to higher education to inner-city investment — but where he truly excelled was in his storytelling. I counted three stories in just about 10 minutes. One about Helen Keller and the difference between sight and vision. Another about his background as the son of a truck driver, how he worked to get into Stanford, how as an undergrad he demanded and secured a place in the only African-American residence on campus, and how, as student-body president, he campaigned against the university’s investments in apartheid South Africa.
And yet another, about his wife, Ann Yu. “My wife is an immigrant,” he told the rapt crowd of about 50 ministers and others. “She came here from China. Her father died after five years, and her mother, who never learned to speak English, had to go out and work in a factory. She had to support Annie, and her grandmother too. My wife grew up on public assistance. But because the state of California had the foresight to invest a little bit, she went from public assistance to taking a company public. Very few places in the world where you can do that. California is one of them. We have to continue doing that, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Hokey? For sure. But effective. I could even imagine someone picking up one of those orange “Westly for Governor” T-shirts after attending that event.
But before I get carried away, back to reality. “Here’s the real difference between the two candidates,” said a Democratic congressional staffer attending the Sacramento party convention. “Angelides has access to other people’s money. Steve has access to his own money.” By the time you tote up what each will spend, then add in the cash blown on supposedly “independent expenditure” campaigns (those multimillion-dollar auxiliary efforts from unions, pro-choice and environmental groups plus quasi-grass-roots “committees” of the candidates’ respective friends), perhaps as much as $100 million will be spent on this nearly invisible primary.
It’s not something, I think, the Democrats should be particularly proud of. And while both candidates are decent and reliable Democrats, this race has to say something very unsettling about a party that, over the last generation, has failed to hatch any populist leaders who could run for office primarily on their earned credits as grass-roots leaders rather than on the bulk of their own or others’ wallets. Whatever the respective merits of either candidate, it’s not like their candidacies were demanded by a groundswell of California voters. Instead, both campaigns are manufactured in thin air, brought to life with money and then imposed downward on the voters.
Nor is it a particularly attractive thought that each candidate has enlisted as his top adviser one of the same two guys who show up like bad pennies in just about every statewide Democratic race as guru to one or the other candidate: Garry South with Westly, Bob Mulholland with Angelides. At times, these two operatives, either separately or apart, have pretty much been the California Democratic Party. You could mix and match ’em from one candidate to the other, let them literally exchange places, and it’s hard to figure what difference it might make.