SAN FRANCISCO — Medea Benjamin, the Green Party of California’s 2000 senatorial candidate, best summed up the left’s reaction to Tuesday’s Republican landslide. “I’m surprised anyone voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said, “but I became resigned to it a few days ago.”
Benjamin, attired in a girly Code Pink sweater, spoke as the early returns were already sketching the depth of the recall victory. Her comments seemed to reflect the mood of the 250 party activists who had gathered in the Delancey Street Foundation’s Town Hall auditorium near the foot of the Bay Bridge to cheer gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo. Instead of shock and disgust, a slight heartache mixed with stoic understanding of political reality ruled the crowd that night — disbelief that a movie actor beset by serious sexual-harassment allegations would trounce the opposition; acceptance that in California, at least, celebrity trumps all.
“Men like guys who grope and get away with it,” Benjamin shrugged. “And a lot of women didn’t believe the charges or just think celebrities do that kind of stuff.”
An hour earlier, Benjamin had dropped by Arianna Huffington’s headquarters above Market Street, where about 60 supporters gathered to spend the evening with Huffington. They had arrived, however, to learn they’d been stood up by their candidate a second time.
“Arianna’s not going to be here,” a campaign worker told them at the door. “She got stuck in L.A.”
By that he meant Huffington, who’d recently dropped out of the race to support Governor Gray Davis’ bid to keep his job, chose instead to appear on Larry King Live. So the faithful, who were occasionally cheered by reminders that Huffington’s movement started in the Bay Area, had to settle for chopped veggies, fruit punch, Trader Joe’s chips and a phone hookup with their former candidate.
When Huffington did come on over a loudspeaker, she promised that she would be in San Francisco 10 days after the election to party with her supporters. Then she mentioned that Schwarzenegger had been elected by a double-digit margin, and the news seemed to knock the breath out of everyone in the room. It was 7:30.
Later, at the Delancy Street’s Town Hall, when I asked if he was surprised by the size of the Republican victory, the Greens’ Camejo claimed he didn’t know what the figures were. When told, he said, with not a small amount of irritation:
“It’s not a surprise to me. I told Davis to resign in June so that the disaster he had created would not lead to a Republican recall. No one, including the L.A. Weekly, paid any attention. Now the Republicans have a clear mandate. This is the kind of disaster you have when a paper like the L.A. Weekly won’t stand up to the Democrats.”
Camejo’s frustration was understandable, given that in California his party has been slipping in the number of votes it’s received since Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green ticket in 2002. The sub–5 percent showing it received in every opinion poll during the recall campaign, and in Tuesday’s balloting, will make it even harder for the Green Party to appear on state ballots and for its candidates to be invited on televised debates with Democrats and Republicans.
Camejo’s inclusion (with Huffington) in the September 3 debate was something he held up throughout the evening as proof that the Greens were making themselves known to an electorate benumbed by the inevitability of two-party races and, in this election, by a media whose reporters familiarly referred to the Republican front-runner by his first name — a dubious “slip” that inevitably skewed reportage in his favor. (It was infectious. At one point during the evening, Camejo paced outside the Town Hall animatedly speaking into a cell phone. “Arnold is not the issue!” he declared.)
And so the Greens spent a foggy night nibbling on quesadillas and downing beer and wine, while hissing every mention of Dianne Feinstein’s name and cheering their next hopeful, San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez.
It may be a while before the Greens field a candidate who is charismatic enough for big media to want to invite him or her to its debates and who knows how to translate the party’s platforms into soundbites. (Gonzalez seems to come close, though.) I was reminded of this midway through the evening, when an amplified phone hookup with Ralph Nader brought on the consumer crusader’s Raymond Massey–as–Abe Lincoln voice — a halting, unvarnished voice, unquestionably honest but sadly unsuited for prime time. Camejo, too, whenever he did land some precious camera time during his campaign, often came off as either too strident or too Jack Lemmon–y, as he fiddled with his statistics about how the poor pay a higher share of income tax than the state’s rich.
Which perhaps explains why progressive endorsements split between the left’s conscience and what its “realists” perceived as the more telegenic Huffington’s better chances of getting a message out. In the end, both candidates’ messages were buried beneath the glitter and sawdust of a campaign that never rose above the circus level predicted by the Eastern media.
When Camejo addressed his supporters for the second time (at exactly the same moment Jay Leno was introducing the victorious Schwarzenegger), he warned of a ballot initiative being prepared that will establish in California an “open primary” system whose top two vote winners will appear in the general election — eliminating any chance of minor parties even getting onto the ballot.
“The Democratic Party is a dead end for those who believe in social justice and democracy in America,” Camejo thundered, climaxing a rally that was neither a concession nor a triumph, but simply the promise to continue down a long, lonely road.
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