PHIL ANGELIDES IS SO LEAN that it’s hard to find a physical description of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee that doesn’t include the word “gangly.” With just under seven weeks until Election Day, he seems to be made of lead, a dead weight threatening to drag down other worthy Democrats and ballot measures to an undeserved defeat.
There are many reasons for Arnold’s ascent and Phil’s fall, chief among them Arnold’s election-year metamorphosis into a Feinstein Democrat, a centrist able to draw votes from the middle 60 percent of California’s electorate. But Angelides’ inability to define the real differences between Arnold and himself, to point out the prospect that Arnold could revert to Republicanism by December, and to dramatize to Democrats the stakes in this election, could lead to further problems for Democrats, and California, in the upcoming vote.
For one thing, there’s the little matter of turnout, which may well be headed to an all-time low. In the most recent polling from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), just 64 percent of frequent voters said they were following the news about the gubernatorial election, and only 15 percent said they were following it “very closely.” But, as PPIC pollster Mark Baldassare pointed out recently in The Sacramento Bee, at a similar point in the 2002 gubernatorial race between Gray Davis and Bill Simon, 74 percent of frequent voters said they were following the race and 22 percent said they were following it “very closely.” And in that election, turnout was a record-low 50.6 percent. In this election, then, turnout could be lower still.
And low turnout in California advantages the Republicans, whom the Democrats outnumber by close to 1 million voters. Indeed, one new poll predicts that the number of Republicans likely to vote will about equal the number of Democrats, utterly negating the Democrats’ huge advantage among registered voters. The problem can’t be laid entirely at Phil’s feet, or to the disenchantment Democrats felt toward him after his bruising primary battle with Steve Westly. After all, the one thing motivating Democrats across the nation to vote this November — the prospect of ending Republican control of Congress — does not exist anywhere in the Golden State, where the Legislature drew lines in the last reapportionment ensuring that none of the 53 congressional districts could be won by the party not already in power there. Had those districts been made a touch more competitive, it’s possible that Richard Pombo, David Dreier, Jerry Lewis — to name just three chairmen of powerful House committees — and a few more Republican warhorses could be in the fight of their lives just now, with Democratic interest soaring. Instead, Democratic operatives are struggling mightily to awaken their voters from a deep big sleep.
Within the last week, some of the unions that clobbered Arnold’s ballot measures in last year’s special election — and produced a voter turnout about 40 percent higher than that of any special election of the past 70 years — reconvened to see if there was a last-minute rescue mission they could wage on Angelides’ behalf. But the meeting did not include representatives of the state’s two biggest and wealthiest unions — the Service Employees International Union and the California Teachers Association — which had provided the lion’s share of the resources in last year’s anti-Arnold campaigns. Now, all these unions have to decide if they want to go after Arnold again, or spend their money on behalf of such down-ticket Dems as Debra Bowen (running for secretary of state) and John Chiang (running for controller), or on the infrastructure bonds and the tax-big-oil-to-fund-alternative-energy measure. (On Wednesday, it became apparent that the unions — including SEIU and CTA — will indeed wage an independent campaign on Angelides’ behalf, to the tune of somewhere between $15 million and $25 million.)
OR, PERHAPS, ON DEFEATING Proposition 90, which is the most dangerous, pernicious and underreported measure on the November ballot. On the surface, Prop. 90 looks like many of the laws that state legislatures have recently enacted to stem the right of local governments, upheld by a recent Supreme Court decision, to take property from one private owner under eminent domain to give it to another (say, a shopping mall) that will provide that local government with greater tax revenues. But Prop. 90 goes well beyond limiting government’s ability to exercise eminent domain to increase revenues — or to build a school or a park. It would require a government to compensate a property owner for any “substantial economic loss” — due to new laws, rules or regulations. According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, “these laws and rules could include requirements relating, for example, to employment conditions, apartment prices, edangered species, historical preservation and consumer financial protection.”
The nonpartisan California Budget Project has spelled this out in more detail. Under Prop. 90, a bank could sue the state for revenues lost if the state had enacted a law limiting the fees a bank could charge for the use of its ATMs. A restaurant owner could sue for revenues lost because he had to pay his workers the state minimum wage. The possibilities are mind-boggling — and a nightmare for state taxpayers, while a dream come true for more maniacal libertarians.
Which, it turns out, is precisely who’s funding Prop. 90. The measure’s leading backer is New York developer Howard Rich, a longtime funder of economic libertarian causes, who heads organizations that have contributed $1.77 million to the Yes-on-90 campaign, and another $4 million to similar campaigns in seven other states. The Yes-on-90 campaign has also received $600,000 from a group called Montanans in Action, with which Rich has long-standing ties, and which, protesting that it is chiefly nonpolitical, refuses to identify the source of its funding.
Could this nonsense pass in a high-turnout California election? Not likely. Could it pass if as many Republicans as Democrats show up at the polls? Could be. One more reason that Phil Angelides had better learn, damn quick, how to rouse the interest of somnolent Democrats.