Better you don’t try out the lesser-of-two-evils argument on Van Jones. At least when it comes to the Gray Davis recall election. “We can’t afford another three years of these state budgets,” says the 35-year-old Yale Law School graduate and director of the Oakland-based Ella Baker Human Rights Center. “In my town we’ve got classrooms of 30 kids who have to share six books. We’ve got classrooms without chalk. We’ve got a state where prison spending has risen 650 percent in 20 years. We’ve got a prison guards union that, in the midst of this budget crisis, is getting a 7 and a half percent pay raise. California has become the biggest incarcerator in the world. From our point of view this recall election is a survival struggle. We’re disgusted and appalled by Gray Davis, and we’re afraid of the Republicans. We need another choice.”
So while a few weeks ago in these pages I mused about Arianna Huffington possibly making a populist run for governor, Van Jones has actually done something about it. He’s put his prestige as one of America’s leading young black activists on the line and ginned up a Draft Arianna Web site (www.runariannarun.com) and — more importantly — has been helping put together a real-life exploratory committee for her candidacy.
For anyone who knew Arianna in her past life as a “compassionate conservative,” the meeting of that informal committee at her sprawling Brentwood home last Sunday afternoon would have seemed unimaginable. Van Jones, environmentalists, leaders of the anti-war movement and some of the most effective advocates against the drug war crowded onto Arianna’s sofas and divans to hear her come just short of a formal announcement. The several dozen activists included an ex-president of LULAC (the leading Latino civil rights organization); Marge Tabankin, who once ran the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee; Salon.com founder and editor David Talbot; producer and liberal activist Lynda Obst; Lara Bergthold, from Norman Lear’s operation; the radical educator and former Crossroads School president Paul Cummins; former RTD official and onetime mayoral candidate Nick Patsaouras; Jerry Brown’s former campaign manager and current Code Pink organizer Jodie Evans; and civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
“Let’s say I’m exploring this seriously,” Arianna said with a big smile. And she’d be running as neither Democrat nor Republican nor Green, but rather as an independent.
With the formal deadline to file as an official candidate still a week away, Arianna’s dodge seemed only a legal technicality. Everything else about that meeting said she was definitely in the race. Peter Camejo, who recently met for three hours with Arianna, has publicly suggested that he would withdraw and endorse her perhaps late in the campaign. Huffington could emerge as the consensual candidate of the California left if Camejo does the right thing and withdraws immediately. It would be quite a spectacular and historic role reversal for someone who once counted Newt Gingrich among her best friends.
“This is not a Nader Nightmare scenario, this isn’t a spoiler candidacy,” Jones assured Arianna’s gathered supporters. “This recall presents a unique opportunity for progressives. Whatever candidate gets the most votes wins. And Arianna can win.”
Also present at the meeting was veteran progressive political consultant Bill Zimmerman, introduced by Arianna as “the man who would be managing the campaign if it happens.” Zimmerman’s presence at the helm should dissuade any serious observer from guessing that a run by Arianna would be merely some sort of media gimmick or symbolic candidacy. Zimmerman has worked on or run more than 250 professional campaigns, including Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential run and Tom Hayden’s 1976 senatorial campaign. Zimmerman also designed and ran two successful California ballot initiatives, for legalization of medical marijuana and for drug treatment instead of jail (Proposition 36).
Without discounting new Internet campaign techniques, the availability of “free media” and the punch that can be delivered by an authentic grassroots campaign, Zimmerman reminded the group that a campaign by Arianna would still need to raise a hefty $10 million or so to compete in the statewide TV ad markets.
Zimmerman’s right, of course. And as someone who had publicly encouraged Arianna to consider the run, let me be among the first to openly acknowledge the scope of the challenges her candidacy would face, beyond that mountain of $10 million or so. In an extraordinarily compressed campaign window between today and the October 7 vote, Arianna needs to craft an understandable and coherent program that offers serious alternatives to both Republicans and Democrats yet retains mainstream appeal; she must convince voters that, if elected, she has the executive oomph both to manage the current crisis and to effect real policy reform in Sacramento. And she must be effective in blunting what will be the inevitable attempts by the media and other candidates to marginalize and trivialize her independent run. For starters, she’s going to have to directly confront the problem of her ex-husband and former senatorial candidate Michael Huffington, who has also floated his name as a candidate. Now that would be a truly trivial candidacy. And it seems he has announced only to annoy his ex-wife (not unexpected from a guy who first let his two children hear about his public coming out as bisexual by reading it in the press). If he continues in the mix, he can only distract from and damage Arianna. Michael Huffington’s little summer prank has to be ended immediately.
These all constitute formidable obstacles for Arianna. But thinking about the alternatives — retaining Gray Davis or electing one of the myriad Republicans who are running — convinces me, as it does Van Jones, that it’s quite worth the gamble. The current governor is much less than even the lesser of two evils.