Rise of the Machines
You couldn’t walk 10 yards in any direction during last month’s Democratic State Convention in Sacramento without crashing into another clump of young volunteer groupies in campaign T-shirts chanting their lungs out. “Phil! Phil! Phil!” shouted the team in the blue-and-gold “Angelides for Governor” shirts, frenetically waving posters. “Steve! Steve! Steve!” went the refrain from the pro-Westly band, decked out in their carrot-orange colors, who were also, yes, frenetically waving their own posters. These chanters were everywhere in and around the convention center: the hallways, the exhibit areas, the ballrooms.
After a half-dozen encounters with these cheerleaders, you longed to walk out to the corner of 12th and J streets, to the propaganda table staffed by the LaRouchies, so you could elevate the discourse, maybe by having a civil colloquy about how the Queen of England is really a crack dealer.
You have to wonder what motivates any of these folks to put on one shirt or another and actually work up a case of sore feet and hoarse throat after days of chanting. I understand voting for either Phil Angelides or Steve Westly in next week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, maybe even liking one or the other — but what does it mean to actually believe in one of them enough to stand around and chant their names for two days straight?
Far be it from me to explain these mysteries of life. Suffice it to say that the few dozen members of these color-coded pep squads look like they’re just about the only Californians who are paying any attention to this election; so perhaps we should thank them for performing such sacrificial civic duty by standing in for the rest of us.
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Hollow, unenthusiastic campaigns, along with a listless and apathetic electorate, are hardly news in American politics. But there’s something about this primary that gives new dimensions of meaning to the words entropy and ennui. You’d think that at a time when the Republican president of the United States is tanking with 29 percent approval ratings, and after three years of a polarizing and in many ways failed Schwarzenegger governorship, and on the eve of what could be a decisive national midterm election, that the biggest state Democratic Party in the country would be out in front of some operatic, rousing populist revival, whipping up its frustrated and even enraged constituents into a whirlwind of political engagement. You’d think Democrats might actually care who they’re going to send out against Arnold in November. You’d be wrong, of course.
Politics is not a zero-sum affair. The ongoing collapse of the national party in power, or the governor in the Statehouse for that matter, does not necessarily rebound in favor of the opposition. Some deluded pundits have gone so far as to describe the Angelides-Westly match as some sort of struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, the usual liberal-vs.-moderate scenario. That, in turn, assumes the party has a soul. Or even a body.
But what the Angelides-Westly race mostly tells us is that the Democratic Party, at least as a party, would be better described as a brittle, even ossified, shell. Even in true-blue California, the party is a sclerotic, dysfunctional affair, ever more remote from the everyday lives of the people it purports to represent. Some small cadres of activists, organizers, hacks and apparatchiks battle each other for control of its levers, but other than these interested parties — or, better said, special interests — no one gives much of a damn. The Democratic campaign to govern the most populous state in the Union, the sixth biggest economy in the world, plays out almost invisibly in a narrowly squeezed parallel universe accessible only to a few thousand operatives, consultants, phone bankers and reporters.
Consider the candidates’ third and final debate, two weeks ago in San Francisco. As Westly and Angelides faced each other for an hour, the event was carried live on CBS network affiliate Channel 5, in prime time, in the virtual world capital of anti-Schwarzenegger resistance, the most Democratic of all American cities, and one that is situated in the northern half of the state, where both candidates’ name recognition is highest. And what was the rating? Nielsen tells us that a grand total of 1.8 percent of the Bay Area viewing audience tuned in. Which means 98 percent of San Francisco viewers chose Access Hollywood, Wheel of Fortune, Entertainment Tonight or reruns of Friends and Seinfeld over the season finale of the Phil and Steve Show. Viewers in Southern California had no access to any broadcast of the final debate.
Which is probably good news — at least for Democrats. For the full, torturous 60 minutes, Angelides and Westly stood there and — purses a-swingin’ — verbally and mercilessly beat the snot out of each other. Angelides, a wealthy developer, the current second-term Democratic state treasurer and a notorious bare-knuckle campaigner, slammed Westly, our current Democratic state controller and a megawealthy former eBay exec, as a flunky and handmaiden for Governor Arnold who shills for Exxon-Mobil in his spare time. Westly dished it right back, suggesting that his fellow Democrat Angelides was in reality one of those tax-and-spend Democrats determined to bust out middle-class families and then bulldoze their homes for some pet development project. Fortunately, we didn’t quite get to the comparison-to-Hitler level, though, during one campaign stop after the debate, Angelides did obliquely compare Westly to dear, departed Tricky Dick: “Just like Nixon had a secret plan to end the war, Steve Westly has some sort of secret plan to fund education,” Angelides said with his unfortunately frequent smirk.
“It’s been pretty bruising so far, hasn’t it?” Jerry Brown said, referring to the campaign as we chatted during the convention. “Both candidates are, really, in the center, the core of the party. But primaries are subtle exercises in manufacturing and creating differences.” True enough, except the part about its being subtle. The debate was so very ugly, so very nasty and so fundamentally irrelevant to the real-life issues faced by voters that the only thing missing was a grinning Arnold Schwarzenegger bounding onto the stage at the last moment, pushing aside his two Democratic rivals and raising his arms in a victory salute.
Phil Angelides is nothing if not driven. The lanky, gangly, big-eared 52-year-old first ran for political office at age 19, when he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Sacramento City Council. Wonkish as he might seem on the tube, he’s a totally engaged and passionate campaigner — even if ground-level campaigning has been relatively scarce on both sides. Harvard-educated, Angelides is fiercely smart, and he takes obvious pleasure and pride in smoothly fielding just about any question, spicing his answers with a dizzying level of detail no matter how obscure the subject.
On a recent Saturday campaign swing through a half-dozen Bay Area labor events, Angelides relentlessly stuck to his message. In short, that he’s the Anti-Arnold — the sort of fighting progressive Democrat who disavows “Republican-lite” centrism. That he’s the guy who “stood up” to Arnold while Westly “stood aside.”
“Steve Westly? While I’m here with you, he’s at home today,” Angelides told a receptive crowd of 75 union volunteers at the Contra Costa County Labor Federation in the town of Martinez. The assembled sheet-metal workers, electricians, carpenters, hospital technicians and letter carriers — all committed Democrats — were about to spend their morning canvassing door-to-door, and Phil was there to crank them up. Angelides continued, poking fun at the $22 million that Westly had put into his own campaign (now up to $32.5 million). “He’s at home having a fund-raiser,” Angelides paused with perfect timing before delivering the punch line: “With himself.”
The crowd now dutifully warmed up, Angelides, dressed in chinos, open sport shirt and a Polo windbreaker, started lobbing out slabs of political red meat. As his tone rose and color flushed in his pale cheeks, he held his right hand aloft at chest level, manually grinding out each phrase. “We’re going to drive Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the Statehouse! . . . We’re going to turn back the right-wing assault on working men and women! . . . You know, from the very beginning, I stood up to this guy Schwarzenegger because I thought he was wrong . . . I stood up to this guy from day one, and you know what? I was labeled the Anti-Arnold. And I’m damn proud of that right now!”
Angelides was so worked up, was he now going to imitate Warren Beatty’s John Reed in Reds and make a vow to support a worldwide workers’ revolution? Not quite. But he said enough to set the union guys and gals cheering: “I promise when I’m governor that I’m going to sign a minimum-wage bill that gives people a way to raise their families and that is going to increase year after year! We’re going to treat working people right!”
The candidate hit his target — the fabled liberal-labor Democratic base. “It’s easy to support Phil,” said Tom Baca, one of the local labor officials present. “He was the first to come out against Schwarzenegger. He didn’t get sucked in by that Hollywood glamour. He wasn’t like Westly, kissing Arnold’s butt.”
For the rest of that day, as Angelides streaked through two more Oakland labor meetings, and yet another one across the bridge in San Francisco, and then a photo-op two-block walk through an Asian neighborhood, he did exactly what a candidate is supposed to do — never veering, even for a moment, from the campaign script. He ably repeated his promises of a Democratic revolution following his inauguration and cracked the same anti-Westly fund-raising joke over and over, never fumbling the timing as the day wore on. When one of the reporters in tow would lob a question to him in between stops, Angelides was available with crisp and ready ripostes.
By late afternoon, having genuflected to Labor all day, Angelides was meeting and greeting that other core Democratic constituency — Affluent Latte-Sippin’ Liberals. In the upscale hills of Piedmont, in the home of a fervent Democratic activist and former party employee (who says the second happiest day of her life after getting married was the night of the 1992 Democratic presidential election victory), the more elderly crowd of guests were served up wine, cheese and a speaker-phone call from Olympia Dukakis (thereby provoking me and a fellow reporter to simultaneously note our surprise that she was still alive). “The more you know Phil,” Michael Dukakis’ actress aunt said over the phone, “the more you want to support him.”
Well, not exactly, Olympia. Indeed, Angelides has what you might call a Likability Problem. His record might be admirable. He’s been a reliable, liberal Democrat on most issues. And he’s gained a national reputation, as California treasurer, for investing state pensions and bonds in socially responsible and progressive enterprises. His personality, however, is something else.
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.”
“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.
The brazen, hardball shamelessness of both South and Mulholland is a source of constant amusement — and quotes both on and off the record — for the state political media, this reporter included. Who wouldn’t share some chuckles over the pure, unbridled chutzpah of either one? But talk about a stagnant Democratic Party. No surprise that the strategists of both campaigns are hard-bitten, totally situational cynics. But does it have to be the same two cynics we’ve seen over and over and over again?
There was Garry South, flopped out in the media room at the Museum of Tolerance a few weeks ago as the two candidates were about to stage their second debate — one where the most debated topic was the burning issue of which guy was softer on polluting dairies. The week before, Angelides had branded South “the King of Mean.” And South, slouching in his chair, his legs open and sprawled out in front of him, was having a grand time now, trash-talking Angelides. “I’m the King of Mean!” he proclaimed to us. “Got to live up to my reputation!” And then, out-staging Claude Rains in Casablanca, South — who was the closest confidant and strategist to Gray Davis during his doomed pay-to-play administration — was now shocked, just shocked, to learn that his current candidate’s opponent was on the take from special interests. “Here’s a man who’s gotten 44 percent of his donations from developers,” South loudly told us, referring to Angelides and feigning a dripping disgust. As South was jawing, Westly’s press aides passed out a database of Angelides’ developer contributions. “I don’t think anyone running in the state has ever gotten so much from one community,” said South.
“I think Democrats ought to take a hard look at what his developer cronies are trying to buy,” South continued. Maybe Gray Davis could help unravel that puzzle for us. And, to be a stickler about it, isn’t Westly getting a greater percentage of his funding from a single community? The Westly family?
Not that I’m making any distinctions here. Angelides’ adviser, Bob Mulholland, is a more than worthy match for South. A backroom political brawler for the last 30 years, Mulholland has advised numerous state campaigns and has been the political adviser to the California Democratic Party. I had a priceless exchange with him on the day after Phil Angelides won the official endorsement of the party at the Sacramento convention.
We were standing outside the convention press room, and I was asking Mulholland about a high-profile contribution that had been given the week before to one of those “independent expenditure” campaigns in favor of Angelides. Developer Angelo Tsakopoulous, an Angelides business partner and finance chairman of Angelides’ official campaign, had ponied up $5 million to something called Californians for a Better Government. Despite the intimate personal relationship between the two men, under state law this committee could not coordinate its activities with Angelides’ campaign and would theoretically be acting on its own (wink wink). The newly formed committee, wholly financed by developer Tsakopoulous and his adult daughter, immediately put up a commercial touting support for Angelides from firefighters and cops (who were played by actors, by the way). Not only was the commercial somewhat clunky, but the whole slippery maneuver was drawing a lot of negative media attention.
“Are you at all concerned,” I asked Mulholland, “about all the bad PR you’re getting around this $5 million expenditure from Tsakopoulous?”
Mulholland looked me in the eye and impassively said, “No.” And then he waited for me to say something else.
“That’s a pretty direct answer,” I responded, taken aback by the unanticipated brevity of Mulholland’s response. “You want to say anything else?” I asked.
“No. Only a fool would get involved in a fight with firefighters,” he added, and then waited silently for me to make the next move.
“Oh, come on, Bob,” I continued. “We both know that’s not where the money is coming from for that ad. Not from firefighters.”
Without a twitch or hesitation, Mulholland answered: “What do you see on TV? Firefighters and cops. Like I said. Only a fool would fight with them.”
In the final days of the race, with neither campaign igniting much response from the voters, neither one staking out a clear lead, and neither Angelides nor Westly able to strongly differentiate himself from the other, both candidates have escalated their negative campaigning.
Though Westly had pledged a clean campaign, he poured $10 million in less than a week into twin attack ads that targeted — and distorted — Angelides’ tax-hike proposals. While Angelides has promised to raise taxes on the top 1 percent of California earners, Westly’s spots suggested they would hurt middle-class families. Angelides, in response, accelerated his already aggressive style and responded with his own negative ad, one spotlighting Westly’s negativity.
Taken together, these latest rounds of spots dragging the race down into the mud can only further depress turnout. An earlier prediction made to me by veteran Democratic consultant Kam Kuwata that both campaigns were going to have to “surgically” find their voters in a low-turnout election ?seems prescient.
Neither of the candidate’s top advisers, however, demonstrate any qualms about the sour tone of the election. South told the San Jose Mercury News that negative ads are a “public service,” that campaigns “are about contrasts and comparisons. I don’t think a campaign ever starts to jell until people have in their minds certain contrasts and comparisons. That’s when people make decisions.”
South’s apologia was echoed in the same report by Angelides’ hired gun, Mulholland. “It’s good to have back-and-forths,” he said when asked about the negative ads. “Providing contrasts is very important to voters.” That is, of course, provided there are any Democratic voters left who care enough to participate by next week.
While the two Democrats are busy sucker-punching each other, the man one of them will face in November — Arnold Schwarzenegger — is staging a steady political comeback. Distancing himself from Bush and much of the national Republican Party, he’s cut deals with the Democratic Legislature to support the upcoming public-works bonds initiative. Undercutting Angelides’ argument for higher taxes to fund education, the governor made another deal with the teachers union and has pledged almost $5 billion in windfall revenues toward public schools. Now he’s talking about imposing a raise in the minimum wage before Democratic lawmakers can get around to passing their own similar bill.
All this leaves some ground-level Democrats feeling rather bewildered, wondering just what their party’s greater strategy might be.
One way to measure the distance between the official Democratic Party and its campaigns on the one hand, and actual Democrats on the other, is to spend a few moments on that corner of St. Andrews Street and 36th Place, the site of the Baptist church where Westly spoke so convincingly ?last week.
“Everything down here is up for grabs,” said veteran African-American pol and former L.A. Councilman Robert Farrell as we leaned on the church railing and waited for Westly to arrive. “Ain’t no difference,” he said of the two campaigns. “Either Democrat’s gonna work for these folks,” Farrell, who declared no preference, said with a purposeful lament. Either one’s okay, because both campaigns are equally disconnected from the community, he implied. Black voters are unlikely to pay much attention to the pumped-up differences between the two, focusing instead — in the fall — on defeating Schwarzenegger.
“Angelides has lined up the party apparatus, but the apparatus doesn’t exist at the intersection of 36th and St. Andrews,” Farrell said. “That Angelides’ numbers have not risen in spite of all the money and energy invested ought to give some pause. It tells me about a Democratic Party drifting away from its base. It might still represent the people who have the interests of the grass roots at heart but are not really, or no longer, the grass roots.”
South-Central congresswoman Maxine Waters has endorsed Angelides, and while her clout should not be underestimated, Farrell said, neither should the power of Westly’s money. “Steve Westly has a real shot at this community. He’s going to spend his money on phone banks, direct mail, slate mailers. So will Maxine. But because the Democratic Party no longer has any real infrastructure in these neighborhoods, everyone and everything is available for purchase.
“You know, it isn’t true what the Republicans say, that they have made real inroads and outreach into this community,” Farrell continued. “But one day, look out. Some smart Republican candidate is going to come through here saying the right things and scoop all of this up. People are going to look around and wonder what ever happened to the Democrats.”
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