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Doomsday for Democrats

Illustration by Juan Alvarado

How quickly it can all slide away. Just nine months ago, the Democratic Party reigned supreme in California, having won a historic sweep of all statewide offices, including the re-elected Governor Gray Davis, and retained strong majorities in both houses of the Legislature and the congressional delegation. With the Democrats’ loss of the U.S. Senate, California was the national beacon for Democrats, a massive redoubt of power for the party. Some pundits said California could never be lost by the Democrats. Never say never.

Less than a year after the first statewide Democratic sweep in 120 years, the party is in grave disarray. Not only is Davis being recalled amid the worst state budget crisis in history, the party’s strategy for beating the recall, as predicted and reported here, has been shattered repeatedly. And the new strategy? Well, stay tuned.

First there was the counter-petition drive, which blew some $1.5 million in suddenly scarce Davis dollars in an attempt to rally the governor’s support. Then the nearly endless court cases, almost all brought by thinly veiled Davis allies and minions. Through it all, the Davis side attempted to say the recall must be defeated because it would lead only to a right-wing governorship, which falls apart when you add moderate Republicans and liberals to the mix. When the Weekly asked Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe weeks ago about this argument — which he had literally just made — he said: “Well, we’ll just have to beat the recall.” He had no answer.

Remember the months spent demonizing Darrell Issa, the right-wing congressman and car-alarm mogul who had youthful brushes with the law around cars and guns? When the Weekly suggested to Democratic strategists that Issa would in the end not run and that the effort might well be wasted, the line came back that they would make him the face of the recall no matter what. It doesn’t look that way now.

Ironically, front-page stories on the morning of Schwarzenegger’s bombshell trumpeted the bold move by state labor leaders to force all Democrats to stay off the recall ballot. Little did they know that California’s highest-ranking Latino elected official was about to ignore them.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into the race not only demolished one of the principal anti-recall arguments Democrats had spent months making, it also shattered the internal unity of the party. Within hours, two of Davis’ ticket mates last November, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante and insurance commissioner John Garamendi, were themselves in the race. Garamendi dropped out late Saturday, under intense pressure from labor and party leaders.

Bustamante, of course, had previously pledged not to run. That was then, this is now. His political consultant, Richie Ross, had been even more insistent, telling the Weekly: “You are looking in the wrong place. He ain’t running, man. Period. Take it to the bank.”

Looks like that check has bounced.

There has never been any love lost between Davis and his lieutenant governor. The two haven’t even spoken for many months. Bustamante’s chronic absence from the rest of the ticket’s joint appearances last year prompted running gags in the press corps. Davis aides often would say that he was about to appear with Davis and the rest of the ticket, then he never would show up. One time the Weekly phoned Bustamante’s office after yet another no-show and was told he was too busy “phoning voters in Fresno.”

The Davis-Bustamante relationship hit permafrost in 1999 when Bustamante challenged Davis’ indirect yet very effective tactic to kill the vestiges of the Proposition 187 anti-illegal immigrant initiative. Davis stripped Bustamante of Capitol parking spaces, and Davis consigliere Garry South openly ridiculed him, moves which unfortunately for the Davis team solidified an already serious lack of regard between the two politicians. When others considered running for lieutenant governor in 1998, Davis let on that he considered Bustamante “a total lightweight.”

For his part, Bustamante guide Richie Ross is also chief adviser to the United Farm Workers. He and his client were baffled by such things as Davis’ long hesitation in signing last year’s farm-labor arbitration bill, considering it continuing evidence of a lack of principle, though to be fair to Davis the Weekly reported then that Davis was likely to sign the bill.

Bustamante is one of the luckiest people in California politics, his career a product of term limits and Democratic catering to the Latino vote. In 1992, he was an unknown district aide to a term-limited Fresno assemblyman who leapt at a high-paying university job, allowing Bustamante to win the seat. When legendary Speaker Willie Brown was forced out by term limits and Republicans couldn’t take advantage, Bustamante, by now a “senior” Latino figure and a moderate who dealt well with Sacramento lobbyists, put together enough votes to serve briefly as speaker. Then with $3 million raised from interests that thought they were contributing to the Assembly Democratic majority in the form of the speaker, Bustamante used his status as the state’s highest-ranking Latino to clear the Democratic field for the impressive-sounding but mostly meaningless office of lieutenant governor. He doesn’t have much campaign money today, but he does have high hopes for help from his allies the Indian casino tribes, which would play perfectly into the hands of Schwarzenegger and other critics of the Sacramento shuffle like Arianna Huffington.

Why no other Democrats? Dianne Feinstein hates turmoil. Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides probably couldn’t win. Bustamante at least can hope for a big Latino bloc vote.

So the one big Democratic strategy, painstakingly arranged for many months, has suddenly but not surprisingly become a number of strategies devised on the fly by multiple players — Davis, labor, the party, a nascent “Democratic unity” group, and Bustamante. Further roiling the waters is Schwarzenegger’s appeal to some Democrats as well as wild cards in the form of progressive columnist turned independent candidate Arianna Huffington and Green Party standard-bearer Peter Camejo.

The Davis strategy is shattered. The big unions are scrambling anew, as is the party apparatus. Davis asked labor last week for $10 million. Labor may give it to him, or it may launch independent anti-recall campaigns. Backing Bustamante would be embarrassing, given labor’s chest-thumping just days ago. Other players, mostly in Congress, had urged an alternative candidate for weeks. Now they have to decide if Bustamante is adequate enough and what, if anything, they can do to assist.

It sounds very chaotic because it is. In the end, ballyhooed marching orders were rebelled against. No one is on top of the Democratic scene today, despite the all-encompassing triumph just nine months ago.


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