I. Cloudless Gray Skies
I always thought that if Gray Davis put his mind to it, he could win a Republican primary.
Let‘s be clear: Last week’s primary outcome was far more a victory for Gray than it was for Lucky Bill Simon. Gray‘s $10 million campaign to take down Dick Riordan was much the most important factor in Simon’s victory. Riordan‘s strategic and personal ineptitude ranked second, with Simon’s own steady appeal to the Republican base coming in a distant third. That‘s not to say Simon is an inept campaigner — far from it. Since election night, he’s been right on message — talking incessantly about the sad state of public schools, uttering not a syllable about his anti-choice and pro-gun positions. If Simon is to have even a ghost of a chance, that‘s the campaign he has to run.
But we’ve seen just such a GOP campaign only a few months ago, with results that should not be heartening to the Simonistas. In last November‘s off-year gubernatorial election in New Jersey, the Republican nominee, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, tripped down the same path that Simon is treading now. Like Simon — who’s under the calamitous spell of various right-wing think tanks — Schundler was a movement conservative in a state that‘s pro-choice, pro–environmental protections, against school vouchers. Schundler had little choice but to run on state fiscal issues, clam up about his true beliefs, and hope that his Democratic opponent, Jim McGreevy, wouldn’t make too much of them. This plan worked perfectly, except for the last part: McGreevy clobbered Schundler over his right-wing beliefs, and won the statehouse by a cool 14 percentage points.
Are Simon‘s prospects as grim as Schundler’s? In all probability, they‘re worse. California is a more Democratic and liberal state than New Jersey, particularly when it comes to those social issues on which Simon, like Schundler, is so vulnerable. Among both Democrats and independents in California, support for choice hovers at about the 80th percentile. Indeed, according to a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, the ideological profile of California’s independents is a lot closer to that of the state‘s Democrats than to its GOP-niks. Forty percent of independents, for instance, describe themselves as liberal, compared to 48 percent of Democrats and just 8 percent of Republicans. Five percent of independents call themselves “very conservative” — compared with three percent of the Dems and 22 percent of the Reeps. In California elections, the center, as ever, is vital — but that doesn’t mean it‘s in play when the Republican nominee is someone like Bill Simon. Dick Riordan might have been another story, but Gray Davis has ensured that that story won’t be told.
Simon‘s one advantage over Schundler, of course, is his opponent. Californians know Gray Davis, which is to say, they don’t like him. The most embittered constituency is probably the hardcore Democratic base, which understands that as the state has moved Democratic and leftward, Davis has stood athwart numerous progressive initiatives, both as a matter of political calculation and in deference to the wishes of his corporate and industry-group donors. But confronted with yet another GOP nominee in the Dan Lungren mold, hardcore Dems have little option but to tape their nostrils and vote for Gray.
Since the primary, Davis has been subjected to some predictable Monday-morning quarterbacking. In particular, his campaign to select the less electable Republican as his opponent has been compared to Pat Brown‘s vastly more modest effort — little more than an expressed preference, really — to tilt the 1966 Republican primary to a right-wing actor with no electoral experience. That actor — Ronald Reagan — then went on to defeat Brown, who was seeking a third term as governor, that November.
But the California of 2002 is light-years from the white-backlash state of 1966, and Gray Davis — alas and woe — is no Pat Brown. Old Pat — who built the University of California and Cal State systems, the freeways, the aqueducts, and signed pioneering civil rights legislation into law — was surely California’s greatest governor, but he was a sadly inept pol. Gray Davis is quite the reverse: a second-rate governor but a first-rate political tactician. His campaign in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary — holding his funds in reserve while Al Checchi and Jane Harman destroyed each other, then going up on the air in the last month to move from third in the polls to first by primary day — was a brilliant precursor of his Republican-primary foray this spring. There‘s little doubt that his pending ad campaign will define Simon to California voters in devastating ways.
More to the point, 1966 was a terrific Republican year, and nowhere more so than in California. The Watts Riots had shaken the state just one year earlier, and the demonstrations at UC Berkeley had also appalled many thousands of longtime Democratic voters. The New Deal coalition crumbled in the ’66 California election, as white working-class and middle-class voters rejected Brown to become the nation‘s first Reagan Democrats.
But the California that elected Reagan is a distant memory — thankfully. For starters, the California electorate of 1966 was roughly 90 percent white; today, that figure is more like 70 percent. Second, with the Democrats now dutifully re-centered on issues like crime and welfare, it’s hard even to conceive of a wedge issue that could be used against them, while the GOP continues to hemorrhage support as a result of its marginal social-issue positions. Third, the Jarvis-era war on spending has clearly come to a halt. Even with the disproportionately Republican turnout last week, voters enacted bond measures for parks and new voting equipment, and approved 63 of 71 local school and community-college bond measures across the state — including all seven that were on the ballot in Orange County. With growing public support for spending on schools, parks, roads and such, with continuing strong support for choice and environmental protections, it‘s hard to see how a fiscal and social conservative like Bill Simon has so much as a prayer.
II. The Duel of the Democrats
With California more firmly in the Democratic camp than any other major state, the real question of California politics is: What kind of Democrats hold the upper hand here? On the whole, the state’s major cities have liberal regimes at their city halls and send liberal delegations (both culturally and economically) to Sacramento and Washington. The Democratic representatives of suburban, exurban and rural districts (many of which are rapidly a becoming more Latino at the ballot box), however, have often tended to be more centrist on cultural issues and less labor-friendly on economic ones. Indeed, the balance of power in the state Legislature is often held by centrist Democrats from marginal districts, many of whom vote with big-business interests even when a majority of their constituents would prefer they side with workers and consumers. A Democratic Business Caucus has emerged in the Assembly, claiming 15 or 16 members (out of the Democrats‘ overall total of 50, and the Assembly’s overall total of 80), the most influential of whom, until he stepped down as speaker earlier last year, was the San Fernando Valley‘s Bob Hertzberg.
“For some time, business interests have meddled in select Democratic primaries — in districts where they didn’t think the Republicans stood a chance — to elect Dem-ocrats who will join Republicans in Sacramento to block progressive legislation,” Parke Skelton, the L.A.-based progressive Democratic consultant, told me last fall. Perhaps the most notable piece of blocked progressive legislation last year was Bay Area state Senator Jackie Speier‘s bill requiring credit-card companies to get signed approvals from cardholders before they could sell their records to other merchants. The bill died on the Assembly floor when business-funded Democrats sided with Republicans against it.
Not surprisingly, there was a growing sense within the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus that it needed to become a more effective force, as Skelton put it, “to keep the Chamber of Commerce from having disproportionate influence in picking Dem-ocratic nominees.” Indeed, many of the state‘s leading energy, telecommunications and financial firms had formed PACs that were waging independent-expenditure campaigns on behalf of their candidates in Democratic primaries. Last fall, the progressives decided to answer back.
In an effort spearheaded by Westside state Senator Sheila Kuehl, two dozen members of the Progressive Caucus pledged to make $3,000 contributions to up to eight liberal candidates for open Assembly seats in last week’s primary. On a parallel track, Skelton met with leaders of the California League of Conservation Voters, the California Nurses Association and the state consumer attorneys group to form the California Alliance, which would wage independent-expenditure campaigns on behalf of those same candidates. The California Alliance would join a pre-existing independent-expenditure PAC — the Opportunity PAC, funded by the state Service Employees International Union as well as the state‘s three largest school-employee unions — in the effort to fund progressive candidates.
Skelton and Co. were responding not only to the challenge of the business PACs but also to the opportunity created by the new reapportionment. As crafted by state Senate leader John Burton, the longtime San Francisco liberal, the plan essentially eliminated marginal districts. Democratic congressional and legislative districts became more Democratic, Republican districts more Republican. And primaries, accordingly, became a lot more important — especially since term limits mean that one-third of all Assembly seats are open every two years.
Totally beneath the radar screen of California’s media, then, last week‘s Democratic primaries featured a classic shootout between business and labor (or more precisely, labor as the lead player in a red-green alliance). And by Wednesday morning, it was clear that labor had come out unambiguously on top. Four of the five Assembly candidates backed by the California Alliance prevailed, as did two of the three backed by the Opportunity PAC. Not all these victories marked a leftward shift, since some of the outgoing incumbents were also progressives, nor did the defeats necessarily signal a shift rightward, for the same reason. There were also some elections — notably L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ defeat of legislative aide Mike Davis for the seat now held by outgoing Assemblyman Rod Wright — that none of these groups involved themselves in, but nonetheless resulted in a switch to a more liberal representative.
All in all, the number of reliable progressives in the Assembly will probably go up by about five — to somewhere between 30 and 35. The progressive victors include Cindy Montanez, the 28-year-old mayor of San Fernando, who defeated Yolanda Fuentes, the candidate of the now somewhat dented Cardenas machine. (Fuentes‘ boss, outgoing Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, apparently lost by a hair his race for L.A. City Council.) Immediately south, in Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks, liberal Lloyd Levine defeated Democratic Leadership Council wunderkind Andrei Cherny, who had the support of the district’s outgoing member, Speaker Emeritus Hertzberg, and his business allies. In the downtown district of outgoing Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (who won his uncontested primary for the state Senate), former L.A. County Federation of Labor political director Fabian Nunez clobbered a business-backed candidate by nearly a 2-1 margin. Other progressive victors included two candidates from districts on the fringes of the Bay Area who defeated the business-supported favorites. And in the center of the Central Valley, Nicole Parra, with the assistance of the United Farm Workers, won a smashing victory over Jim Crettol, former president of the state‘s Farm Bureau (whose campaign attacked Parra for signing on to a “radical lesbian agenda” by accepting contributions from state Senator Kuehl).
These were all hard-fought contests. The two main business PACs — raising their money from the likes of Chevron-Texaco, BP Amoco, Pacific Telesis, Target, Disney, Tenet, Nissan, the state’s beer-distributor organizations and the ever-popular “Big Five” accounting firms — spent about $735,000 on independent campaigns for five candidates running against the progressive coalition‘s; other business and allied PACs spent another $150,000 or so. The two progressive PACs ponied up roughly $995,000 for their candidates in those races. None of this counts the direct contributions from legislators, unions, business people and others to the candidates’ own campaigns.
III. Latinos: Movement and Machine
Here in L.A., the involvement of business and labor was superimposed over existing conflicts within local Latino politics, where Latino candidates backed by the L.A. County Federation of Labor and its most active locals (notably, the janitors and hotel workers — both left-leaning unions whose members are preponderantly Latino immigrants) routinely face off against candidates backed by the political operations of more business-friendly Latino elected officials. Call them the movement candidates and the machine candidates — and given the Election Day clout of the County Fed, the movement candidates have tended to prevail more often than not.
The movement candidates last week were the County Fed‘s very own Fabien Nunez and San Fernando’s Cindy Montanez. Like virtually every Latino running for office in L.A. today, both are children of immigrants. Nunez cut his teeth organizing among undocumented immigrant workers (like his elders Antonio Villaraigosa, Gil Cedillo, and the hotel and restaurant union‘s Maria Elena Durazo, he had the legendary Bert Corona as one of his mentors) before he went to work for the labor movement proper. Montanez got involved in the fight to establish a Chicano-studies department while an undergrad at UCLA in the mid-’90s; she‘s been an activist ever since.
The pedigrees of the machine candidates were equally emblematic. Yolanda Fuentes, the candidate whom Montanez defeated, became involved in politics first as a volunteer on Alex Padilla’s City Council campaign, and then as a staffer for Padilla‘s friend and ally Assemblyman Tony Cardenas. While Fuentes’ own work as a community-based staffer seems to have been exemplary, the larger purposes of the Cardenas-Padilla organization seem anything but. Within the Northeast Valley, they appeared to center on the care and feeding of James Acevedo, their political consultant, whose drive to be included in any major deals or projects in the area is relentless. In the wider world, Cardenas made his mark by siding with the state‘s Indian casinos in their efforts to avoid unionization, then dunning the tribes for vast campaign contributions as the need arose.
Nunez’s opponent, Pedro Carrillo, has been a longtime staffer for Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard — a pol with none of the unsavory associations of a Tony Cardenas. Running against labor‘s number-one candidate in the March primary, Carrillo perhaps inevitably morphed into the business candidate. In fact, both he and Fuentes would likely have been a decent vote on most labor issues on the Assembly floor. But it is difficult seeing either taking a leading role, say, in a push-the-envelope living-wage campaign that broadens the scope of the conventional ordinances, while such a campaign would be second nature to a Nunez or Montanez.
For the pioneer generation of Latinos who entered politics 35 years ago, there was neither much of a movement nor a machine upon which they could rely. Richard Alatorre, the “Godfather” of Eastside politics for several decades, built a reputation as a key ally of the fledgling United Farm Workers, and in time built a machine of his own in East L.A. Today, with the growth of Latino political power and patronage, and the growth of a laborLatinoliberal alliance, two largely distinct paths are open to young Latino activists — and the growth of organized-business and organized-labor involvement in the state Democratic primaries will only reinforce the two tendencies. It’s no accident that no one among the younger generation of Latino political leaders seems able to synthesize, as Alatorre did for a time, both the movement and the machine sides of Latino politics. The institutions of Latino politics, and the options before Latino pols, have grown vastly since Alatorre began his career. (A third political path — that of the Latino pol who is largely a protege of the non-Latino power elite — is more characteristic of cities and states that have less of an autonomous Latino infrastructure than L.A. and California do. For the moment, the only local Latino pol who has successfully followed this route is L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.)
The pickup of five seats by liberals in last week‘s primary is significant because it tracks the overall political progression of the state. With the ongoing political mobilization of Latinos changing the politics of such onetime conservative bastions as northern Orange County from Republican to Democrat, with L.A. County now as reliably liberal in its voting as the Bay Area, with state independents aligning increasingly on the more liberal side of the spectrum, the Democrats whom Californians send to Sacramento and D.C. should be moving leftward. And with term limits mandating a turnover in Sacramento every two years, last week’s liberal victories may well foreshadow clear liberal majorities in both houses of the Legislature within four or six years‘ time.
All of which means that the chief question Bill Simon should be asking himself as he embarks on his general-election campaign for governor is: What the hell am I doing here?
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