Progressives Indifferent to Angelides’ Fall in Polls

by Randy Shaw on April 18, 2006

After state public employee unions stomped Governor Schwarzenegger’s initiatives last November, Treasurer Phil Angelides seemed a sure bet to win the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination. Angelides is a close ally of the powerful California Teachers Association, and is supported by the core progressive Democratic constituencies whose voter outreach efforts typically decide primary elections. But the most recent Field Poll shows Controller Steve Westly taking an 11-point lead over Angelides, and the frontrunner’s decline has failed to galvanize a progressive response on his behalf. Are progressive Democrats unaware of the differences between the two candidates, or, contrary to their frequent assertions, are the Party’s core voters focusing on electability rather than ideology?

After spending $100 million to defeat Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initiatives, the public employee unions that led this fight would appear to want nothing more than to say ‘hasta la vista’ to Arnold this November. This may explain the lack of grassroots excitement over the overtly progressive candidacy of Phil Angelides and the surprising polling numbers for Steve Westly, the politically moderate multi-millionaire who is self-funding much of his campaign.

According to Angelides’ camp, Westly massive personal spending has created a temporary hike in his poll numbers. This spike will presumably be offset by Angelides’ far greater grassroots operation, a critical factor in what is expected to be a low-turnout June election.

But there may be far more going on here than simply a wealthy candidate “buying” rising poll numbers. Based on the surprising lack of interest in the governor’s primary, it appears that even many die hard progressives want the candidate they believe is best able to defeat Arnold, even if that person would have few ties to progressive interests once in office.

The most common complaint among progressive Democrats is that the Party, particularly at the national level, routinely prefers the most “electable” candidate rather than the person most loyal to progressive principles. This point has been made ad nauseum regarding John Kerry’s nomination in 2004, and the desire for “electability” was the driving force behind the successful Democratic campaigns of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

According to progressive Democrats’ mantra, the candidate perceived to be most “electable” may in fact not be; instead, Dems should follow the Republicans example and pick the candidate that can galvanize the Party’s base and, most importantly, govern as a progressive if elected.

In many respects, Phil Angelides is the Howard Dean of the state Democratic Party. Just as Dean was the only Democratic presidential contender who opposed the war in Iraq, Angelides was the only major California Democrat who never had a “honeymoon” period with Arnold and never relented in his criticisms of the Governor’s right-wing agenda.

On virtually every issue affecting California, Phil Angelides has been staunchly progressive. He is so principled in his politics that he is openly promoting what every state Democratic officeholder knows to be true but will not publicly acknowledge: that the wealthy and corporations must pay higher taxes for our education and health-care systems to survive.

Progressive activists are always complaining about politicians’ refusal to say the “T-word,” and one would think they would be flocking to help Angelides’s neo-populist campaign. Here is a candidate finally talking about economic fairness, a person with the smarts and skills to become the state’s first progressive governor since Jerry Brown’s first term thirty years ago, and grassroots activists could not be less interested.

San Francisco progressives have been far more involved in the Ma-Reilly and Yee-Nevin contests than in the choice of the potentially next California governor. Given the local outcry over the need to revise the state Ellis Act, the importance of increased school funding, and the Schwarzenegger Adminstration’s refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund health, education, housing, and social needs, activists’ disinterest in electing a new Governor who shares their priorities is nothing short of astonishing.

And while some may hotly dispute this conclusion, ask the activists you know if they are working on the Angelides campaign or are paying much attention to the Democratic primary for Governor. Unless they are active CTA members, or belong to another public employees union, the answer to both questions is likely no.

The reason for the lack of grassroots enthusiasm for Angelides involves the same issue that I raised repeatedly last year in arguing that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom would be the Democrats strongest challenger to Arnold: Angelides does not look like a California Governor. This lack of physical presence overshadows his other qualities and, in the minds of many progressives, makes him “unelectable” in November.

Labor unions appear to have reached a similar conclusion. That’s why we are seeing none of the campaign frenzy that surrounded the campaign to defeat Arnold’s initiatives last November. Labor loves Angelides, and feel it owes him support, but this primary is all about beating Schwarzenegger and politically savvy activists do not believe Angelides is the guy to do it.

Steve Westly apparently is the guy who can. Westly campaigned with Arnold across the state in support of the bipartisan debt-reduction bonds in 2004, and was often accused of having a “too cozy” relationship with Schwarzenegger. But Westly has the physical appearance of a California Governor, and has the financial resources to keep up with Arnold.

Westly’s campaign is managed by Garry South, who was also the strategist behind Gray Davis’s successful 1998 campaign for Governor (though unlike Westly, Davis had a long political history and a legislative voting record that was quite progressive). South’s track record is knowing how to win, a goal he feels Angelides is ignoring.

For example, whereas Angelides is telling voters the truth that higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations are necessary to fund state services, South told the Los Angeles Times (“Angelides Dares to Say the T-Word,” April 14) that the Treasurer’s promoting of tax increases is “beyond idiotic. I can’t even begin to tell you how stupid that position is. If he is the Democratic nominee in November, he is toast.”

Angelides has been attacking the Republicans “no new taxes” approach for years, expressing the type of “straight talk” that progressive activists supposedly love. But rather than reward Angelides’ progressivism by helping his campaign, California activists have apparently concluded that it is better to nominate a moderate who can win then a progressive with a lesser chance of winning in November.

Angelides must be wondering where he went wrong. After hearing from activists about the importance of offering a progressive vision, he finds himself behind in the polls to a Democratic candidate who has kept his distance from the Party’s base. Unless Westly’s momentum is suddenly reversed, he, not Angelides, will be the beneficiary of the pervasive anti-Arnold sentiment in November.

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