The Unimportance of Being Camejo

Just two weeks ago, Peter Miguel Camejo was looking shrewd and wise for rejecting the planned strategy shared by the Democratic Party and many Greens to allow Governor Gray Davis to defend his title without any interference from a left-leaning candidate. Given the weird math of this particular electoral process, it even looked as though the Green Party gubernatorial candidate and financial adviser — who earned 5 percent of the statewide vote when he faced Davis and Simon last fall — might even have a shot at winning. E-mails began circulating among the traditionally disaffected encouraging young ravers and radicals to involve themselves (one was specifically geared toward potheads, as Camejo supports releasing marijuana offenders from jail); Camejo was even getting a little press, in particular for his alliance-in-the-making with Arianna Huffington, with whom he’s now made an official pact to concentrate the progressive vote if one of them looks poised to win come election time. “I have faith that having both of us campaigning will make the progressive current stronger,” he told me last week. “Arianna will be the only woman major candidate and I’m a Latino, and the two combined makes a very powerful force.” And while Huffington may have a lock on the Hollywood talk show circuit, “I’m doing all the Spanish-language talk shows” said the bilingual Camejo.

But of course, that was two weeks ago, a long-lost era that now seems terribly remote in the current climate of California’s slaphappy politics. Schwarzenegger has since stepped in to block most of the media light; Democratic candidate Cruz Bustamante has declared his candidacy, giving Camejo someone other than Davis to spoil the election for. Worse luck, his alliance with Huffington has turned out to be somewhat less than the public-relations coup he might have wished: The woman who might have turned the media in Camejo’s direction was transformed overnight last week from a progressive immigrant success story to a noblesse oblige liberal enjoying cake-eater’s tax breaks. When Huffington held a press conference on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent last week — in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel where Schwarzenegger notoriously consulted with then-Enron CEO Ken Lay during the state’s energy crisis — she spent a disproportionate share of her time fending off blond women from the TV newsrooms badgering her about why she sends her children to private school (“I will not use my children as guinea pigs,” she answered) and whether she deducts her mortgage as a business expense.

It seems Camejo’s unlucky lot: Throughout his political career, he has held press conferences complete with explanatory charts that rarely make it to print or broadcast; he has demanded debates of people (Davis) who won’t share a room with him. Some critics of the media within the Green Party would cast it all as a conspiracy to keep the reasonable left silent, with Camejo the alternative-energy promoting, biodiesel-burning persona non grata of Big Corporate Media Interests, thwarted by shifty-eyed men in boardrooms paid to excise from reporters’ copy any idea that might defeat the status quo. But the problem is no doubt both less sinister and deliberate: While Schwarzenegger and Huffington serve up good copy with their complicated personal finances, Camejo’s straightforward business dealings are beyond imaginable reproach. If he’s famous for anything, he’s famous for creating a socially conscious (and respectably well performing) investment fund for Merrill Lynch. While other candidates hire experts to position them for maximum political effect (Huffington has hired adman Bill Hillsman, who won Paul Wellstone a longshot Minnesota Senate race in 1990 and later helped make Jesse Ventura the state’s governor), Camejo sends a four-woman team to meet with Huffington’s people because, according to Green Party spokesperson Beth Moore Haines, “it’s women who bring forward issues of family and work environment and caring for the community.” With an earnestness bordering on desperation, Camejo wants the media to detail his positions on the economy and the less fortunate. “Please, please, please explain to your readers that the poor are taxed at a higher rate than the rich in California,” he implored me. “Would you tell them that when we raise taxes on the poor, we call them fees? DMV fees, sales tax — this is how we tax the poor.”

He calls Davis’ reported $38 billion state deficit a myth: “When you say you have a deficit what it means in the English language is a difference between income and expenditures. But in 1997, with 48 billion in income, California had a balanced budget. This year we had 63 billion dollars in income.” At a normal revenue growth rate of 3 to 6 percent, Camejo argues, “we should have a $30 billion surplus.

“We’re shutting down schools and clinics and programs from the blind and elderly because Davis has been busy giving away rewards to the people who support his campaign,” he asserts. “It’s a disaster. An unnecessary disaster.” Nor does he hold the federal tax cuts responsible for bankrupting the state: “George Bush is responsible for a lot of evil in the world,” Camejo argues. “But he’s not responsible for the state budget deficit in California.”

None of Camejo’s analysis is likely to break through the media membrane during the recall campaign, if only because there’s just too much else going on. And with the Greens divided on the merits of the recall, Camejo now has the added burden of his party’s ambivalence: While 90 percent of Greens voted to endorse Camejo in an emergency poll of the party’s 11 regions completed last week, the Greens “are still deeply holding positions on opposite ends of the spectrum” about the recall, says Haines, the party spokesperson. “Some people feel it’s really inappropriate to align ourselves with an effort to undo a democratic election. Others think that as long as the playing field is leveled for the benefits of the Democrats and Republicans, we should take advantage of this opportunity, even if it’s not of our making.”

Camejo himself says he welcomes the intra-party debate: “To go public with the criticism is fine,” he says, adding that a lot of Greens have changed their minds in favor of the recall once Bustamante joined the race. “I’ve encouraged the Greens who oppose the recall to speak out.” Speaking strictly for himself, however, Camejo can’t wait to see Davis thrown out. “I think it’s wonderful that he’s going to be removed,” he exulted over the phone from Oakland last week. “All I’ve ever said from Day One is that Davis should be removed. He and the team around him have been totally incompetent and irresponsible.” So irresponsible, in fact, that “he makes Republicans sound reasonable.”


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