Alongside just one endorsement this year, we've placed an = – indicating our choice is the lesser of two evils or just one of life's gloomier compromises.
GOVERNOR – Dan HamburgFor the past 16 years, California has had only Republican governors – George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, to get right to the gruesome particulars – and it is chiefly this GOP lock on the statehouse that has given us billions of dollars for prisons and the most underfunded schools in the nation, University of California regents who go to war on affirmative action, a judiciary increasingly indifferent to employee and civil rights, and a succession of “wedge-issue” initiatives (187, 209, 226 ad nauseum) designed to pit race against race and class against class. This year's Republican nominee-to-be, Attorney General Dan Lungren, is certainly more affable than Pete Wilson – no great achievement, that – but if anything, he is to Wilson's right, coming down on the wrong side of such issues as a woman's right to choose and restrictions on assault weapons. Lungren's tenure as attorney general has been marked by lax enforcement of the laws designed to benefit consumers and the environment, and he delayed California's entry into the omnibus tobacco lawsuit until virtually every other state in the union had joined.
Defeating Dan Lungren this November is the sine qua non of any attempt to restore California's reputation for educational excellence, economic opportunity and social justice that it enjoyed at the height of the post-World War II boom. And in November, the Weekly will likely support whichever candidate seems best positioned to defeat him.
But it's a long, long time from June to November, and in June, we think the proper course for progressives is to express a principled disagreement with – and disappointment in – the three leading Democratic candidates for governor. All have considerable talents, but, outside the context of a one-on-one matchup with Lungren, we find that their debits weigh more heavily on our assessment than their talents.
Congresswoman Jane Harman brought one major calling card to the race: She initially seemed the strongest candidate the Democrats could field against Lungren. For three successive elections now, Harman has carried a South Bay congressional district that conventional wisdom said was too conservative for a Democrat to win. The secrets of her success have been a sizable family fortune she's spent on her campaigns, a staunch pro-choice stand that has appealed to Republican women, and a voting record and set of beliefs well to the right of almost any other Democratic congressional member from California.
The problem is, when Harman called herself “the best Republican in the Democratic Party,” she wasn't being hyperbolic. Harman opposed the Clinton health-care plan, not to mention the merest suggestion of single-payer insurance. She favored not just balancing the budget, but even supported a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, which would have the effect of inflicting on the entire nation the kind of decline that California has experienced in the 20 years since Proposition 13. Unlike senators Feinstein and Boxer and 22 of California's 26 Democratic House members, she supported the 1996 welfare-reform bill despite its sanctions (quite unrelated to welfare) on legal immigrants. Finally, Al Checchi's attacks on Harman have so damaged her image that even her November electability is no longer as axiomatic as it once seemed – rendering any case for progressive support of Harman's candidacy utterly moot.
There is, on the other hand, a clear case for progressive support for Al Checchi, and it derives entirely from the content of his platform. Simply stated, Al Checchi is running on the most liberal and farsighted program of any of the major candidates for governor. Only Checchi focuses on the profound underinvestment that California makes in its schools and its transportation and water projects; only Checchi stands up against the demagogic and destructive idea, spawned by the GOP but embraced by his two Democratic rivals, that we should rebate billions in DMV fees to motorists rather than use the funds to better the schools. (Checchi, on the other hand, may overestimate the amount of money that can be plowed into the schools without raising taxes.) Only Checchi dwells on the state's growing income inequality and the need for a higher minimum wage. Only Checchi addresses the crucial issue of sustainable growth by positing legislative restrictions on suburban sprawl. Only Checchi has called for the repeal of Proposition 209. Some of these proposals are gutsy to a fault – a more experienced candidate might never have made them – but they certainly move the political dialogue in California in the right direction.
Alas, this is not the Checchi that his campaign has chosen to present to California voters. Instead, we've been saturated with the most massive ad campaign, and the most massive negative ad campaign, in the history of state politics. That campaign illustrates a side of Checchi also in evidence in his tenure at the helm of Northwest Airlines, where he all but blackmailed the state of Minnesota to help bail out the company, only to renege on his commitments to build additional Northwest facilities there, and where he threatened Northwest's unions with plunging the company into bankruptcy unless his massive stake in the company (for which he paid virtually nothing) was preserved during the company's restructuring. The Checchi problem is simply that he is the most ruthless and amoral operator we've seen in years.
The other Checchi problem, of course, is his role in the ongoing subordination of the democratic process, and the rule of one person/one vote, to big money, and the rule of one dollar/one vote. Checchi, to be sure, is no Michael Huffington, an empty suit with $30 million to spend on an election. He's a full suit, but one that's never spent a day in public service (or frequently even bothered to vote). His presumption that private-sector success translates into qualification for public office is bolstered neither by logic nor experience (see, e.g., Richard Riordan). There has been no dearth of rich folks in politics – the Kennedys and Rockefellers spring to mind – but almost all have had apprenticeships in lower-level posts before running for the top ones. It takes a Sophoclean dose of arrogance to view the governorship of California as an entry-level job – and one that, with enough money, can be bought off the rack.
Which leaves Gray Davis, who commends himself to progressives as a compendium of negative virtues: He is neither a Republican in Democratic clothing nor a rich man seeking to buy an office. But Davis brings some more positive virtues to the race. As lieutenant governor, he led the unsuccessful fight on the UC Board of Regents against Ward Connolly's destruction of affirmative action, and the successful fight to have UC adopt domestic partner benefits. He was a key force behind the tuition reductions at UC and CSU last year. Since his days as Jerry Brown's chief of staff and as an Assembly member in the early '80s, he has been a consistent voice for diversity in the public sector and for a woman's right to choose. And in his current campaign, he is calling for the kinds of reforms (like teacher testing) that public education badly needs, and boosting the funds (though not to Checchi levels) that the schools will receive.
But at a moment when California has the kind of needs that require major departures from past practice, and the kind of economy that actually permits us to undertake ambitious projects on the scale that Earl Warren and Pat Brown embarked upon, Gray Davis remains steadfastly timid. Where his commitment to schools falls short on money, he talks up mentoring – a woefully inadequate remedy for the faults of public education. His candidacy, he told the Weekly, “by its very nature is cautious, incremental . . . By definition, I take things a step at a time.” It may be that Davis' extensive experience in government has chastened an already very conservative temperament, that serving under 16 years of Republican governorships shrinks a Democrat's sense of the possible. In any event, it is a sense in which Davis seems strikingly deficient.
Moreover, in the course of his long career as the most relentless of fund-raisers, there have been a number of instances when Davis exercised questionable judgment in using public facilities or privileges (like state-employee air-travel discounts) in his quest for contributions, or took money from people doing business with the state. None of this was illegal. But we get the sense from Davis of a pol who not only has mastered the game but is consumed by it, and whose view of the opportunity afforded the next governor may be, by both inclination and conditioning, inadequate to the moment.
How, then, should progressives respond to the shortcomings of the Democratic field? The Weekly recommends a June protest vote for Dan Hamburg, the Green Party's candidate for governor. Hamburg, who was a left-leaning Democratic congressman from California's north coast district from 1992 through 1994 (elected in the Clinton victory, defeated in the Gingrich sweep), has since joined the Greens. He is running on a progressive platform that calls for democratizing the California economy, reducing Proposition 13's stranglehold on the state, and for a vision of social ecology premised on sustainable growth with equity. Where the Democrats accept (and in the cases of Checchi and Harman, personify) the market's domination of all social life, the Greens, and Hamburg, offer a humane alternative to the cult of wealth accumulation where Democrats no less than Republicans pay homage.
Hamburg's own record, while generally fine, is not above reproach (as an activist working against the siting of a nuclear dumpsite in Ward Valley, he has oddly aligned himself with Native American activists who oppose a tritium test that would likely kill the project). Nonetheless, we find the Democratic field as dispiriting as any in modern memory, and believe that the Green Party opens up the political discourse that the two major parties have largely narrowed into a monologue. For June, this is a clear way for progressives to register their discontent.
LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR – Tony MillerCruz Bustamante, termed out of both the Assembly and his speakership thereof, is the best-known candidate for the office that Gray Davis is leaving to run for governor. He is not, however, the best qualified candidate. As an assemblyman, Bustamante was a safe vote for agribusiness – often against environmental groups or the United Farm Workers; as speaker, he was largely ineffectual. His chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Tony Miller, served as California's acting secretary of state in 1994, when March Fong Eu was made an ambassador. In 1996, Miller co-authored Proposition 208, a flawed campaign-finance-reform initiative which the voters enacted but the courts have since struck down. Miller now pledges to use the rather duty-free office of lieutenant governor to stump for an even better version of campaign finance reform, and while his impact within Sacramento would likely be minimal, his capacity to mobilize statewide support for another run at cleaning up elections would likely be enhanced. Campaign finance reform is one of those issues that brings out the self-righteousness in reformers, and Miller's not exempt from this, but he's also an intelligent progressive, and our clear choice for lieutenant governor.
SECRETARY OF STATE – Michela Alioto The 30-year-old granddaughter of onetime San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto is a former staffer for Vice President Gore and was the unsuccessful 1996 Democratic nominee for Congress in California's north coast district (the one that Dan Hamburg represented from 1992 to 1994, see above). Partially paralyzed at age 13 in a ski-lift accident, she's campaigning for the position of what is effectively the state's top election officer on a platform of making it easier for the disabled to vote, and making the process more accessible generally. With voter turnouts tumbling to pre-Jacksonian levels, Alioto could provide a welcome antidote to the culture of civic indifference. Despite our regard for Peace and Freedom Party candidate Israel Feuer, Alioto's our choice.
CONTROLLER – Kathleen ConnellNearing the end of her first term as controller, Connell has overseen audits and identified savings in the state's Medi-Cal and lottery programs and a number of school and special districts, as well as in the state's costly prison system, where she argues for the redirection of nonviolent offenders to less pricy facilities. She's also put together a program offering tax credits to companies donating the equipment they use in their workplace to community colleges. Connell has a clear vision of the state's larger needs and how she can address at least some of them in her current position, to which she clearly deserves re-election.
TREASURER – Phil AngelidesA former chair of the California Democratic Party, Angelides is a Sacramento developer who's devised a plan by which smaller municipalities and school districts can pool their bond issues to get a better deal on Wall Street. Angelides has the business smarts and the (moderately) progressive principles to make a first-rate chief investment officer for the state – which is essentially what the state treasurer is.
ATTORNEY GENERAL – Lynn SchenkThree major Democratic candidates are vying to succeed Dan Lungren as the state's top cop – the key position not only for criminal law enforcement, but, if the attorney general is so inclined, for enforcing the civil rights, employee and consumer rights, and environmental laws of California. One of the three candidates, San Gabriel Valley state Senator Charles Calderon, would be an out-and-out disaster in the position. In his years in the Legislature, Calderon's become the chief defender of the state's insurance industry, at various and frequent points outraging organizations such as the Consumers Union and the California League of Conservation Voters for such bills as the one making it easier for home builders to avoid liability for shoddy construction and another that would have had the state assume the risk for insurance companies' high-premium, low-coverage earthquake policies.
The other two candidates are former San Diego Congresswoman Lynn Schenk and longtime East Bay state Senator and Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer, and these two present progressives with a difficult choice. Both are predictably tough on crime, though both favor restricting third-strike prosecutions to violent offenses. A daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Schenk actually worked while a young lawyer in the criminal appellate division of the state Attorney General's Office. In the latter years of Jerry Brown's governorship, she served as the state's secretary of business, transportation and housing. She was elected to Congress in 1992 from a Republican-leaning San Diego district, and lost the seat in the Gingrich jihad of '94. Outside the public sector, she's been an in-house counsel for San Diego Gas & Electric and an attorney in private practice specializing in international law. Her campaign emphasizes her commitment to enforcing the civil law – consumer protection, antitrust and the like – that has taken a back seat during Lungren's time on the job.
Lockyer, by common consent, is Sacramento's reigning legislative genius, the closest the Legislature has come to Willie Brown since – well, since Willie Brown. In 1997, with rookie Speaker Cruz Bustamante fumbling in the Assembly, Senate leader Lockyer was widely considered the force that made both houses work, and the legislator most responsible for thwarting the machinations of Pete Wilson (deep-sixing a good number of the gov's more problematic appointments). In his years in the state Senate, Lockyer steered to enactment legislation that reduced the state tax liability of working-class families, restored food stamps for legal immigrants, made California the first state with a hate-crimes statute, enabled the state public defender to better pursue death-penalty appeals, created the state's first “whistle-blower” protection law, strengthened the collection of child-support payments, and required mediation in child-custody disputes. We think that Schenk and Lockyer would each bring humane values, a relevant resume and considerable zeal to the attorney general's post.
We are troubled, though, that in his role as legislative leader, Lockyer has frequently made himself beholden to such major funders as the trial lawyer and tobacco lobbies, and while we don't doubt he'd be an excellent A.G., Schenk certainly would bring less baggage to the job. In a very close call, she's our choice for attorney general.
INSURANCE COMMISSIONER – Hal BrownIn 1994, Republican Chuck Quackenbush was elected to this position, which had been created in 1988 by the passage of Ralph Nader's Proposition 103. Quackenbush, however, is not what Nader had in mind. In his first campaign and then first term in office, he accepted $6.1 million in contributions from the industry he's charged with regulating, and, not surprisingly, proved to be one very industry-friendly commissioner. Nonetheless, only two Democrats, neither one remotely inspiring, are seeking the office. Diane Martinez, daughter of Eastside Congressman Marty and herself a termed-out Eastside member of the Assembly, is regarded by colleagues and staffers of all ideologies as the single most erratic and ineffective member of the body, with a penchant for assessing legislation not by its merits but by her relationship to its author.
Her opponent is Hal Brown, an insurance broker who's been a Marin County supervisor for the past 16 years. Brown is a member of California's most illustrious political family – nephew to Pat, first cousin to Jerry and Kathleen – but is decidedly less impressive than the other Brown officeholders. On the Marin Board of Supes, however, Brown has been a fiscal conservative and an environmental activist, toughening the county's toxic-waste statutes, and taking on cable-TV companies and Firemen's Fund Insurance when it dropped its fire coverage (well, what would you expect Firemen's Fund to drop?) of Marin homeowners. He criticizes Quackenbush for ignoring the mandates of Proposition 103, calls for an end to ZIP code- based insurance rates, and wants the commissioner to get jurisdiction over HMOs, whose practices he'd like to subject to a patient's bill of rights. Brown may lack some of the luster of his celebrated cousins and uncle, but he'd bring the right values and a steady hand to an important position. He's the only one of the major candidates who can be counted upon to work conscientiously for the consumers, motorists, homeowners and patients of California.
MEMBER, STATE BOARD OF EQUALIZATION, 4th DISTRICT – John ChiangChiang was chief deputy to eq-board member Brad Sherman when Sherman moved on to the greater glory of Congress. Since then, Chiang has served as acting member from Sherman's old district, which comprises most of L.A. county. A tax attorney who's worked at various times for Barbara Boxer, Gray Davis and Kathleen Brown, he combines the requisite expertise with a generally progressive approach to tax issues. Though he lacks Sherman's ineffable aura as Tax Nerd of the Western World, he nonetheless is more than amply qualified for the job.
UNITED STATES SENATOR – Barbara BoxerCan a principled liberal stay true to her beliefs and still be effective in a Republican-run Senate? To her considerable credit, Barbara Boxer has. She remains among the handful of genuine progressives in the upper House – holding fast for civil liberties, for the idea of public responsibility for the jobless poor, for all manner of unfashionable causes. She is the Senate's strongest champion of environmental protections and women's rights. At the same time, she's pushed for tougher a standards for drinking water and for pension-fund management, and is now embroiled in a struggle to require child-safety locks on handguns. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she's been relentless – and relentlessly successful – in winning funds for such projects as quake relief, L.A. harbor expansion and the Alameda Corridor. Boxer is a profile in courage and pragmatism, which takes some doing.
The Republican most likely to be Boxer's opponent this fall is, by numerous accounts including that of his onetime business partner, a dangerous thug. Even were he not, Boxer would have our enthusiastic support.