TV & Radio
The New York Times
May 23, 2006
In a Fight Against the 'Governator,' California Democrats Lack a Superhero
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
SAN FRANCISCO May 19 — As a rule, when the goal is to unseat a governor recognized in every nation where televisions are sold, who has enjoyed moments of wild popularity, and whose locution includes phrases like "girly men," it is good to avoid references to "procurement reform."
But it is this sort of earnest stuff — plus promises to repair California's budget, improve its education system, protect the environment and pressure businesses to provide health insurance — that makes for the Democratic primary campaign here.
Two fixtures of Democratic politics — Phil Angelides, the state treasurer who made a fortune as a real estate developer, and Steve Westly, the controller who made even more money as an early employee of eBay — are in a battle to take on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in November.
For each of the Democrats, the challenge is not simply to convince voters that it is time to evict Mr. Schwarzenegger from Sacramento, but that they should return the tutelage of the state to a person with a political résumé not so unlike that of Gray Davis, the humdrum party insider recalled from office in 2003.
For Democrats nationwide, the primary on June 6 is more than another local race. It is a precursor to a critical fight in November, when Democrats are looking to gain offices — including governorships — across the country. Winning back Mr. Schwarzenegger's job, with the Republican-led recall still stinging, would be a particular achievement.
"Nationally it would be very important to win there," said Brian Namey, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
But although Mr. Schwarzenegger's popularity has plummeted since his early days as governor — his approval rating last month was 39 percent, according to a recent Field Poll — his numbers have begun to rebound. Beating him will be a tough fight for either of the Democratic hopefuls, several political analysts said.
"Sometimes campaigns are wars of attrition, where the approval numbers for the incumbent are low, but his campaign succeeds because the opinion of the opponent ends up being lower," said Bruce E. Cain, the director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
On the surface, Mr. Westly and Mr. Angelides seem like two versions of the same Democratic Party player. Each has served for many years in the party, with a successful hiatus in the private sector.
They hew to the Democratic center on nearly every social issue, and both have made more access to higher education a centerpiece of their campaigns. Both are from Northern California; most voters hail from the southern part of the state.
Each more or less plays the role of Mr. Rogers to Mr. Schwarzenegger's governator, making gentle, loving references to their immigrant family members (Mr. Westly's Chinese-born wife, Mr. Angelides's "ya-ya," or Greek grandma), quoting Scripture (Mr. Westly) and being exceedingly nice to schoolchildren (Mr. Angelides).
Both compare themselves to President Bill Clinton, perhaps unsurprising in a state where Mr. Clinton is more popular than almost anywhere else.
But in recent months, Mr. Schwarzenegger has stolen some of the Democratic middle ground. The governor has appointed Democratic advisers, aligned himself with Democratic state lawmakers on a huge infrastructure bond proposal and found himself with a $5 billion budget surplus because of surging tax revenue. He has even agreed to give back millions of dollars to public schools, after withholding the money last year, essentially surrendering to the demands of organized labor.
The narrative of Mr. Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign seems to be: I have made some big boo-boos, I am regaining the confidence of voters bipartisan-style, and P.S., I still have more money and fame than any Democrat who wants to bring it on.
For the next two weeks, though, Mr. Angelides and Mr. Westly are too worried about each other to worry about Mr. Schwarzenegger.
Both of the Democrats believe, in Mr. Angelides's words, that "there is a world of difference" between them.
Mr. Westly has focused his campaign on hammering away at Mr. Angelides's plan to raise taxes on the state's highest earners to help pay for education programs. His plan to offer free community college would be paid for, he said, through the elimination of waste and fraud.
Mr. Westly paints himself as the classic centrist Democrat, or the modern urban Republican, who is like his conservative counterparts on budget concerns but progressive on issues like the environment and gay rights. He takes credit for helping shore up the budget surplus this fiscal year and promises more of the same. He calls himself an outsider.
"My opponent has made a $10 billion tax increase the center of his campaign," Mr. Westly said in a telephone interview. "Raising taxes is the last resort. People want more accountability."
He has spent $32.5 million of his own money, which has bought him, among other things, an unanswered period of early advertising that has lifted his profile — and poll numbers — statewide. The advertisements helped push him 11 points ahead of Mr. Angelides — 37 percent to 26 percent — in an April Field Poll, after months of trailing him. More recent polls show the lead is up for grabs.
For his part, Mr. Angelides has tried to paint Mr. Westly as Arnold Lite, the man who agrees with many of the governor's fiscal policies, as when he supported Mr. Schwarzenegger's 2004 bond package to refinance the state's debt.
He says his opponent failed to stand up to the governor when he went after teachers and health care workers in a failed ballot initiative last year that sought to alter the rules for teacher tenure and limit unions' political fund-raising, among other things.
"Westly is just like Schwarzenegger," Mr. Angelides said in an interview. "He mouths all the words, but he is not willing to make multimillionaires give up some of their tax breaks."
For picking a fight with the governor over that ballot measure, Mr. Angelides has gained most of the union support in the state, as well as the nod from the state's Democratic caucus. He is more old-school liberal, demonstrated by the lack of amusement at the Chamber of Commerce when he told its members recently that they should contribute more to the state's coffers.
Both men are furiously running around the state pressing their cases. Mr. Angelides started a two-week tour on Thursday, beginning with a news conference in Santa Monica about the environment. Mr. Westly plans to begin a bus tour on Wednesday, with stops in Chico, Redding and Sacramento, and ending in the Los Angeles area on Election Day.
Both will try to appeal to hard-core voters who may be weary after numerous elections and the recall. Experts predict a low turnout, and a smattering of voters interviewed in Los Angeles and San Francisco seemed underwhelmed. At several events in both cities, the candidates drew the interest of a few reporters, a passel of church congregants and some fifth graders.
Some political consultants said the lack of interest was the candidates' fault.
"What they should be talking about is the gas crisis or immigration issues," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic consultant. "But they never talk about that. Both of them are spending all their air time hitting each other on taxes, which is about as far away from what's on the mind of Democrats as I can imagine."