YES, THE RUMORS ARE TRUE. There are Democrats running for governor. They’ve amassed huge amounts of money — $24 million for state Controller Steve Westly, the ex-eBay exec; something under $20 million for Treasurer Phil Angelides, the front-runner. They are even beating the incumbent in the polls.
Not that you’d know it. Unless you are paying especially close attention to politics, which, after five straight years of major crises and statewide elections, many Californians are more than happy not to do before the next big showdown. Besides, the ongoing soap opera of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s morphing back into a centrist after his disastrous “Year of Reform” — one old friend calls it a “lurch” — has drawn the spotlight.
Yet there is a Democratic battle coming, despite the quietude that many have remarked on. In fact, the fight is starting right . . . now.
“Phil Angelides is a loser against Schwarzenegger,” declares Garry South, chief strategist of Gray Davis’ two winning campaigns for governor, and guru of Westly’s bid. “He’s an accident waiting to happen. He has a reputation as an environmentalist, but he’s really a land developer who made his money on the suburban sprawl around Sacramento. He and his patron Angelo Tsakopoulos [a super-rich developer and business partner of Angelides] are the Sultans of Sprawl. You look at their developments near the threatened levees that could turn the capital into New Orleans, the rezoned property, the paved-over wetlands, it makes a great visual of what Phil’s ‘environmentalism’ is really about.”
The Angelides response, via senior adviser Bob Mulholland, the longtime state Democratic Party honcho: “This is a tragic repeat of typical Garry South tactics — the same tactics that brought down Democrats and the first successful recall of a sitting governor in California’s history.”
“Steve has challenged Angelides and Schwarzenegger to put out 10 years’ worth of tax returns as he did months ago,” says South. (Both have declined to do so. Schwarzenegger released two years of returns when he ran in 2003, but has not done so since.) “After Schwarzenegger’s big surprise last summer, with his secret $8 million sell supplements in the muscle-magazines deal, we have to know what candidates’ real interests are. Arnold won’t do it, and Phil won’t do it. Phil can’t put out all those tax returns, because he’s been in endless partnerships, trading properties, which is how these guys avoid responsibility. At one time he was in 50 partnerships with Tsakopoulos, his family and friends.”
The Angelides camp says now that the treasurer will make his tax returns available during the campaign filing period, which begins next week. Asked what period those returns will cover, Angelides aide Dan Newman replied, “Let’s talk during the filing period.”
The primary election is four and a half months away, on June 6. The Democratic race is finally coming into sharp focus. And not a moment too soon, because Schwarzenegger and his rapidly forming new team are getting their act together. Though his scene internally is still “chaotic,” as one Arnista puts ?it, the governor’s statements and schedule show a coherence that was lacking in the past, when the “strategy” seemed to be to announce that he was showing up somewhere to talk about whatever and wait for the cameras to show.
If you think about it, it’s odd that we’re not already focusing on what looks to be a hard-fought contest between Angelides and Westly. (Oscar-winning director/movie star Warren Beatty will be out there swinging away at the Republicans as he did in the special election, but unless he receives a visitation from the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt, he is unlikely to make the race. Director Rob Reiner will be pushing his ballot initiative for the latest education panacea, universal preschool.)
Schwarzenegger is vulnerable even though the two candidates who are running against him are hardly household names. While both hold statewide office and have been considering a run for the governorship for many years, until now they haven’t engaged with each other in a campaign that will be over in what amounts to little more than one quarter in a college student’s academic career. As one source close to Angelides put it: “Arnold was taking up all the oxygen in the room with his latest reinvention.”
BUT NOW THE FIGHT IS ON.
Angelides, who begins with a slender lead, and Westly both come from activist backgrounds and are products of elite universities, Harvard and Stanford, respectively. Both chose paths to riches, Westly in cyber-commerce, Angelides in real estate.
Amusingly, before getting in on the ground floor at eBay, Westly ran for state Democratic Party chairman against former Governor Jerry Brown in 1989 . . . as “the grassroots candidate” vs. “the candidate of money.” Brown beat him, 2-to-1. Angelides was state Democratic chairman after Brown, helping elect U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who co-chair his campaign along with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez.
Angelides is the candidate with most of the Democratic endorsements. “The same coalition that defeated Schwarzenegger in the special election is coming together for Phil,” says Mulholland. The firefighters union has already endorsed. Several sources say the massive California Teachers Association will endorse this weekend.
“If we can capture the spirit of everyone who was on the frontlines against the special election in this campaign, Phil will win,” says pollster Paul Maslin, who, ironically, worked closely with Garry South in the Davis days.
“Two other factors,” says Maslin, a veteran of many national campaigns. “There’s a no-bullshit factor arising in our politics. Phil is no showman like Arnold. He’s the guy who’s been there on the frontline of the issues. Steve spent a long time working with Arnold, while Phil identified where he was coming from right from the start.”
For his part, South notes that Westly teamed with Schwarzenegger when the governor was in bipartisan mode working with the likes of Feinstein and ex–state Senate President John Burton.
Westly starts running ads this week in Chico, a rural college town north of Sacramento. He’ll be there next week for personal campaigning. It’s a shakedown cruise before the big spending ramps up.
All but $4 million of the Westly campaign’s $24 million in the bank is from the candidate. Before running one ad, Westly has matched the money Schwarzenegger has contributed to his own various campaigns.
If the more moderate Westly wins the nomination, South likes his chances against Arnold. He tells of a series of focus groups conducted last month, with a particular emphasis on conservative Democrats. They are one of the two groups, moderate independents being the other, with whom Schwarzenegger is trying to regain popularity he once had, but lost. According to South, it will take more than a burst of energetic centrist campaigning to make up for the damage that’s been done.
“We had them [focus-group participants] do the ‘first word’ exercise,” says South, referring to the practice of naming someone or something and asking people to write down the first word that they associate. “It was brutal,” says South. “ ‘Jerk, idiot, clown,’ these were the sorts of associations they were making with Arnold. He doesn’t turn that around just by making nice for a while.”
Read Bill Bradley’s blog at www.newwest