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Hoping Machines

THERE MAY BE ALL SORTS of wonderful things about the band Blizzard. Unorthodox song structure. Dark, radical chord progressions. Rock & roll so technical the keyboardist had to follow charts. (But dude — it’s rock & roll. How hard could it be?)

But few things have ever been more certain than that Blizzard was the wrong band on the wrong night at the wrong time — the wrong band to play a party for a candidate whose followers believed if their guy loses this election, the Republicans will win the next; the wrong band for a gubernatorial candidate who spent the entire night almost exactly three-and-one-half points in the hole. Even while the night was still young — when Steve Westly trailed Phil Angelides by a mere 30,000 votes with 7 percent reporting — Blizzard’s guitarist introduced a scratchy, gloomy ballad “about Democrats winning elections.”

It sounded like a dirge.

If human beings, as Woody Guthrie once observed, “are really nothing more than hoping machines,” the people who stood subdued and expectant before the giant flat-screen monitors in the ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel Tuesday night were the fullest expression of Guthrie’s idea of humanity. Neither glum nor happy, they waited, in navy and black suits, one arm folded across the chest to support the elbow of the drinking hand. They stared at the washed-out projection of a computer screen tuned to the secretary of state’s election returns, and they waited for those numbers to budge.

Angelides 47.8; Westly 43.2.

“We’ll turn this around,” said a lawyer who introduced himself to me as John Levine.

“There’s plenty of time.”

Levine went on to explain how Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should be impeached for participating in the immigration march. “He’s advocating for a violation of our constitution,” he insisted. “I mean, what are those people saying? ‘We’re illegal, but let us stay here anyway’?”

Clearly, Levine wasn’t speaking for the room on that: Westly had worked hard on the Latino vote, and he had the partygoers to prove it. “We started with only 15 endorsements in Southern California,” said Robert Perez, Westly’s Latino-outreach coordinator. “But as soon as [state Senator] Martha Escutia stepped in, we started racking them up. Huizar, the United Farm Workers — now we have three pages full. They can’t touch us on the Latino issues.” It was unclear whether he was talking about Villaraigosa-endorsed Angelides or Schwarzenegger. Maybe both.

Westly had less success, however, with the African-American consensus, said Kevin Barrett, a tall black man in his 50s whose daughter Rian had worked on Westly’s bus tour. Barrett confided that he wasn’t comfortable with Angelides’ environmental record; he backed Westly because Westly is honest. But he believed Westly had lost much of the black vote when Magic Johnson endorsed Angelides.

“I just hope people can put two and two together,” said Barrett, “and realize that Magic is a developer, and he’s in it for what he can get.”

As recorded dance music replaced the band, a blond man with an official air breezed past.

“Mike Levin,” he barked, stopping to shake my hand. “Los Angeles Times exit poll: 48-48. The election won’t be decided tonight. But you didn’t hear it from me.”

Still, on the big flat screens, only the numbers after the decimals had changed. Angelides 47.2; Westly 43.8. The room had the sense of a standoff about to break apart, waiting for the next screen refresh, when we would all see that Angelides’ lead had at least narrowed by a point.

IT WAS CLOSE TO 10:30 P.M. when a panicked woman who had been managing the room all night cleared a corridor through the cluster around the flat-screen monitors. Bernard Parks grazed past, trailed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke and Cruz Bustamante. As the entourage continued to the stage, more faces came into focus. Westly, when he appeared with his wife, Anita Yu, tried to introduce them all — Congressman Brad Sherman, former City Councilman Nate Holden, Cruz — but something happened.

Was it a flash of paralyzing anxiety? Or could the aspiring governor really not remember the name of the former police chief turned city councilman standing behind him?

“We’ve run a terrific campaign, and we’re going to be running a terrific campaign for another two days,” Westly announced after sputtering Parks’ name, adding that “most of the counties strongest for me” had yet to report. “When I ran for controller, by this time at night we were down five points. Heck, three-and-a-half is nothing!”

As he stepped off the stage, television crews crushed in. You had to wonder how it felt to know that if the numbers didn’t move soon, it would be a long time before reporters battled to get his voice in their microphones.

“I don’t care that Angelides is a developer,” said a young environmental attorney named Adam Englander as we watched Westly make his way out of the room. “I don’t believe that he’s a bad environmentalist. But Steve sounds excited when he speaks about government. He ran for office with his own money because he wanted to do something good.”

Standing nearby, Shu Kwan Woo, formerly with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, nodded his head. “Here is a guy who will use technology and innovation to solve problems,” he added. “Like Al Gore.”

After an inexplicable two hours between sets, Blizzard returned to the stage. Hotel staff had begun carting away the food tables, the big screens shut down, and people were heading out the doors.

After a couple songs, they stopped.

In the lobby at the check-in table, Joe Huser of the San Diego County Young Democrats scrolled down his PDA with one last hope: San Diego should have been among those counties Westly would be strongest in. But as Huser clicked through, his expression wilted. “Forty eight-41,” he groaned. He kneeled with his arms on the table, and buried his head.

But he still wouldn’t say it was over.


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