'The Main Problem Is the Role of Money in Politics'

L.A. WEEKLY: You have always been politically active. Why now are you running for office? What is your motivation this time around?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: Well, I didn’t expect me to run for office, ever. The reason I say I want to run is because I believe the system is broken. [But] I was not interested in running to get my message out. I felt I had a platform to get my message out — you know, my books, my columns, my media work. I ended up running, first of all, [because of] the urging of people I respect. And because of the unlikely nature of this election. There was an unprecedented opportunity here: to get, to actually elect, a progressive governor, who’s not affiliated to either of the parties and who can appeal to independents. I have no party. I would not run in the primary of any of the parties.

There are elected Democrats as liberal as you.

Yes, but I’m challenging the definition of what is left, because I think that’s very important. The main problem is the role of money in politics. A lot of candidates that you would describe as liberal are beholden to a lot of special interests in order to get elected. I’m seeing it now that I’m raising money. It’s very hard raising money from individuals. I mean, we have over 2,500 individual contributors now, which is twice as much as any other candidate has. But it’s either small contributions — like five dollars, 10 dollars — or it’s my friends giving large contributions. But there’s a limit to how much you can raise that way, and there’s no limit to how much you can raise if you are willing to take money from different interests.

What’s the difference between you and Peter Camejo of the Green Party?

Well, Peter is the head of [a] party. And his interest, as well as everything else, is building his party. I’m not a member of the party, so my interest is movement building. You see, there are two different ways to bring about change. And I believe the way the system is right now, and until we have instant-runoff voting, it’s going to be very hard to really bring about reform through third-party politics. Even though I believe in multiple parties, the model that I’m following, that I believe in, is movement building. I believe that if you have a critical mass of people sufficiently galvanized, you can really succeed in reforming the system. Because even after you win, if you don’t have that group of people, you’re still not going to be able to change things, even with the best intentions.

So, my model is sort of the civil rights movement model, the women’s movement, the movement to end the war in Vietnam. Which [Martin Luther] King called a creative minority. It’s always gonna be a minority [of the citizenry] pushing on politicians. When I published Pigs at the Trough, my last book, I did a 20-college tour, and it was collecting names, getting people involved, working with groups that are working on government reform on campuses and elsewhere. That predates my candidacy.

Part of the challenge for progressives during the last few years is the lack of a unified, worthy goal to unite behind. Will you try to focus on one issue, or merge multiple issues?

Well, for me, it is a single issue, the way big money is determining our political and policy priorities. That is the one dominant issue. And the way that Cruz Bustamante is backtracking and is on the defense on the issue shows how much salience the issue has. We have the wrong priorities determined by big money.

Say you win, what do you do with Republicans and Democrats in the state?

I believe there are a lot of good people in the Legislature, who are at the moment victims of the system. And who, if the leadership is there, would remember why they got into politics in the first place. And would want to be part of this fundamental movement for reform. It’s really kind of appealing to the better angels of their nature.

If that technique, if that strategy, doesn’t work, the fallback plan would be taking my major priorities and turning them into initiatives and going directly to the people. And basically using the authority of my office, and the bully pulpit, to campaign for them up and down the state. And bring them about that way. And the first one would be public financing of campaigns.

Do you like the campaign-finance laws for the city of Los Angeles, the public-funding part of it?

Yeah, but I like the system of Arizona and Maine the best, because it’s a system that has been proven.

The instinct of some voters is, why vote for Huffington when you know she won’t win?

I believe that the election at the moment is completely up for grabs. Closer to the election, I think that becomes a very important question. Because I would not want to be responsible for giving the election to Arnold Schwarzenegger. But let’s take Schwarzenegger, I mean, he is a Bush Republican, despite all his window-dressing. And who really believes that the main problem that we have is that we don’t have a favorable enough climate for business in California?

A few days before the election, if the outcome could swing either way, are you saying you would consider endorsing another candidate to prevent Schwarzenegger from winning?

I don’t really know. What I’m saying is that I would definitely look at that very carefully.

There was talk about you and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo possibly combining your support. Is that possible?

Absolutely, yes. This state, and this country, cannot afford a Republican governor or a Republican president.

Were people wrong to vote for Ralph Nader?

I wouldn’t say they were wrong. It was just nobody knew how destructive George Bush would be.

To what extent, if any, is Cruz Bustamante better than Gray Davis?

I’m not saying he’s better than Gray Davis. I’m saying he’s better than Schwarzenegger.

Why not just oppose the recall?

Even if you oppose the recall, you need an insurance policy. I would say 80 percent of the people giving me serious money are against the recall. I tell everybody: Vote your conscience on the recall. Vote for it, or vote against it, but vote for me in the second part of the ballot.

How are you voting on the recall?

I’m voting for the recall. Because I want to be governor.

What is your principal complaint against Gray Davis?

Well, my principal complaint is that he is somebody who’s brought a tremendous amount of ingenuity, creativity and passion to fund-raising, but not to governing. And, you know, somebody who’s raised $77 million to run against Bill Simon — not exactly a compelling candidate . . . You know, that takes a lot of time. I’m running to change the system. And that’s why I’m running in this particular time, where there is an opportunity for somebody who’s not self-funded, who’s not taking special-interest money, to nevertheless win.

If Cruz Bustamante were elected, would the reform atmosphere of the recall become a dead-end process?

Well, first of all, I think that getting the recall ballot certified would not have happened were it not for Darrell Issa’s millions, and the Republicans wanting to overturn a legitimate election. But having said that, no amount of money will get Gray Davis recalled. It’s only the popular anger at him that in the end, if he’s recalled, will be responsible for his recall. And it’s not just Gray Davis. The anger is at the system. Talk to people. Gray Davis has become a symbol for a broken system. So let’s say Cruz Bustamante becomes governor. I think there’ll still have been reform energies unleashed. If we make sure that they just don’t evaporate, they will lead to fundamental change.

Can you talk about how the media coverage had the effect of trying to marginalize you as a candidate?

Well, definitely the media want to sort of narrow the field before the voters are ready to narrow the field. They’re comfortable with a two-man race. They know their game. They broadcast it like a horserace. So I definitely saw the attempts to marginalize me early on. Which I find stunning, given that I have a record of writing on these issues. Compared to Schwarzenegger’s record?

What other voter initiatives would you pursue besides campaign finance?

The other initiative is closing all the corporate tax loopholes. Having spent two years researching corporate abusers, I just saw how everything I learned about the national scene [also applied to] California, when we look at what business is paying in taxes, and when you look at the way Prop. 13 has been abused, with all the loopholes and tax shelters. So that will be my second proposal.

What about health care?

I will support Sheila Kuehl’s reform [a single-payer system] over John Burton’s reform [requiring large employers to provide insurance], because it’s broader, and it could basically pay for itself, and save us money.

Are you in favor of raising taxes on the wealthiest Californians?

That’s definitely on the table. I would basically start the other way around. First of all, I would fundamentally change the way we raise revenues for the state, which is changing Prop. 13. And I don’t mean just the corporate taxes on property.

I would never increase tuition for colleges. That would be off the table.

How do you feel about vouchers and charter schools, and education reform in general?

I’m against vouchers. I’ve done a few columns in which I’ve quoted that great line about vouchers being the Schindler’s List of public education: You can help a few kids, but it doesn’t really affect what happens to public education. I am a proponent of public charter schools. I really believe in the way that public charter schools can affect the whole system as well as affect a lot of children directly. When we see what’s happening here with the Accelerated School in View Park, and the great impact they’ve had. And that’s why I would be in favor of some changes that would make it easier to start charter schools.

Like what?

Like equalizing per-pupil funding. Like multiple authorizers, and some construction money. Right now, it’s a real struggle getting a charter school started because they get no construction money, and they get less per-pupil funding. Nevertheless, I’ve met some of the most remarkable people who have started charter schools in California. You’re getting some of the most amazing teachers.

How would you critique Gray Davis’ direction in education reform? Hasn’t he achieved some of his goals?

Yes, he can cite some individual improvements in scores, but in general, if you look at the fact that 2 million children are still in substandard schools, and the fact that he went along with the [federal] No Child Left Behind Act, which we have completely fought against in terms of the completely wrong emphasis on testing and overtesting. This whole way that he went along with something which is basically damaging, and which basically is pretending to give people a choice to go to another school when there is not a school for them to go to. So the whole premise of this act is flawed. But Davis just completely went along with it, as he went along with so many other things.

This emphasis on testing doesn’t come from Davis and Bush alone, but also from Bill Clinton and people from all over the ideological map.

I agree with you that there is very much a bipartisan consensus around testing. But Gray Davis did not have to go along with the bipartisan consensus. I believe that testing is largely meaningless unless you have the resources to do something when it shows that the children are not doing well. Otherwise, it’s like taking a child’s temperature and not having any medicine to give them when you keep finding out that the child has a high fever. You know, what is the point? You’re basically reinforcing the fact that the children are failing. We know that. Do we really need to be testing them constantly? And it’s also really dramatically changing teaching. If you talk to teachers, you see how differently they’re teaching. They are teaching to the tests rather than teaching to get the child to learn and to love learning.

Any notable policy differences on environmental issues between you and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo?

We both put a tremendous emphasis on a renewable-energy policy. It’s both an environmental issue and a jobs issue. There is a multitrillion-dollar emerging market for renewable energy around the world. And we have the opportunity to be the first. But that will require leadership. It will require investment by government the way we’re invested in the Internet.

We have the resources. We have the ingenuity. We have the climate. We have everything to be a leader in this field. But instead we’re not. And again, even the good things that Gray Davis has done — like the regulation on auto-emissions standards — if you look at the timetable, it’s so lackadaisical. There’s no sense of urgency. One of the things I would bring to environmental issues is a sense of urgency.

Populist campaigns don’t usually stress some of the issues you stress.

I want to go back to [Arizona Senator] John McCain, because even though John McCain is a Republican, he’s entirely around this issue [of campaign finance]. I remember speaking at Harvard on the day of the Massachusetts primary. And in the middle of my speech there came the news that McCain had won the Massachusetts primary. And these students, these really radical progressive students who were there, stood up and cheered.

And I stopped, and I said to them: "That’s really interesting. Because you obviously disagreed with McCain on his issue on choice. Or gun control, you know, any number of his other positions." And the argument was that nothing will change if we don’t get money out of politics. So I think people get that. And McCain showed that they get that.

If you could get elected as a Democrat, would it be worth being a Democrat?

I don’t really know. I mean, first of all, I’m not really thinking at all of running again if I don’t win this time. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but right now I’m like running a marathon. And it ends on October 7. And all I know is that on October 8 I’m going to have a vodka.

Are you expecting an Arianna Huffington swell at the polls on October 7?

Well, you know, a campaign is a combination of what our campaign does and what happens to the other campaigns. So we have no control of what happens to the other campaigns. The public is really connecting more and more with what it means when politicians are in the pocket of special interests. The thing that I keep driving is not the sort of theoretical argument for campaign-finance reform. But the fact that we don’t have universal health care, we don’t have good schools, and we don’t have clean air — because of who is paying the piper in Sacramento. So that’s really the key.

What is your feeling about Cruz Bustamante?

I’m running against Schwarzenegger and Bustamante. And I have a lot to say about Bustamante. I will keep saying it every day. For him now to appear as a progressive when he’s cast so many anti-environment votes — when he voted for energy deregulation. He voted for deregulating workers’ comp. And he took money from the tobacco industry.

But you are proof that a person can evolve to the left.

But I have made it very clear. He has not made it clear. He hasn’t said, "I’m sorry. I was wrong in 1996 and 1993 and whenever. And I’ve seen the light, and I’m thinking differently."

There are a couple of votes he semiapologized for. He said he regrets having voted to deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Yes, he did say that. But I have made a mea culpa about my past mistakes. I mean, there has to be a statute of limitations for my past mistakes. You know, it was like seven years ago, and there’s been a record of thinking and writing since then. All candidates in this race probably have made their mistakes in the past. For some it was alcohol; for others group sex. For me it was Newt Gingrich, right? We had different vices. But remember, when I was a Republican, Enron was a great energy company. And George Bush was running a mediocre baseball team. It was a very different world.

If you weren’t in the race, would you vote against the recall?


Would you suggest legislation banning recalls?

No, no. What I would recommend is reforming [the process]. I would eliminate the possibility of paid signature gatherers. I think it dramatically changes the whole initiative process [if] you could have an initiative put on the ballot because people are really going out and collecting signatures, and they really want to do it. As opposed to bringing them from other states and paying them. The second point is that we would need to raise the bar in terms of being a candidate. It would have to be substantially harder to qualify as a candidate.

Meaning more signatures?

More signatures is one way to do it. There are a lot of ways to do it.

One more question. You seem to be a progressive candidate, but you don’t like labels of left and right —

I love the term progressive —

What is an example of an Arianna position that is not traditionally liberal?

If you take the positions that I have been espousing and present them to people, they would support them. The minute you identify them as left-wing positions, the support drops. So for me it’s a communications strategy. When I spoke at the conference of Fortune magazine and Money magazine, I spoke to them about corporate abuses. And I asked them, "Why is it supposed to be left-wing?" Why is it supposed to be on the left to want corporate reform?