California Leadership The Democrats’ Lost Opportunity

By  Tom McEnery


Taking on an entrenched and popular incumbent is a dubious prospect for any Democrat, at any time, but courageous and thoughtful people in the Democratic Party — from President Bill Clinton to a young Gov. Pat Brown — have tried and succeeded. This year, in California, there is a difference. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, is no Clinton. He is no Pat Brown. In this sort of election, in which a relatively unknown challenger takes on a well-known incumbent, a couple of things are supposed to happen following a fractious primary — namely, the post-primary bump in polling numbers, then the rallying of the overwhelming majority of the party around its nominee. Neither of these events has happened.

After Angelides and state Controller Steve Westly competed for the Democratic nomination in a horrible mud fight of a primary election, Angelides saw no such significant rise in his polling numbers. In fact, according to a nonpartisan Field Poll released July 25, Angelides’ support has remained frozen at just 63 percent of Democratic voters.

Angelides now finds himself on a larger stage before a bigger audience, and with the opportunity to tell voters who he is and what he stands for. As the nominated challenger, he also has a chance to reach out to new audiences and tap their votes. He can impress people with new ideas. Yet, Angelides has impressed few; his recycled, hackneyed ideas illustrate that he is not the kind of leader that a state as large and diverse as California deserves. And the more voters are exposed to who Angelides is, the less they like what they see.

Californians — and Democrats in particular — simply are not buying into Angelides’ campaign and his $10 billion-and-climbing tax-increase plan. What’s more, there are many good reasons for Democrats to support incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s job-approval numbers keep climbing. He has an impressive record on the environment, he supports small businesses and entrepreneurs and he strongly supports keeping violent criminals in jail. As mayor of a major city for eight years, I know these core positions are important to voters. They also are issues
that appeal to many Democrats, like me, who are willing to cross party lines, if it is necessary to elect the best candidate.

It seems that other Democrats are open to doing the same. Prominent members of Angelides’ own party, such as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, are working closely with the governor. Former Speaker Willie Brown, his primary opponent Steve Westly, and his running mate for lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, have all criticized Angelides.

Looking a bit deeper, 1 in 5 voters still has no impression of Angelides, despite tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll also released July 26. Angelides is making efforts to appeal to Democrats who voted for Westly in the primary — advertising in places where Westly won, spending time in regions he lost by large margins, such as the Central Valley — but he is gaining little traction.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger is gaining support among many Democrats and is courageously charting a middle course with little ideological bent and much bipartisan advice.

To rephrase an old mayor’s adage, there is no Republican or Democratic way to balance a budget or rebuild a state’s economy — only the right way or the wrong way. We see real progress in Schwarzenegger’s strong support for small businesses and his environmental record. We also see a dogged attempt to shake the status quo in Sacramento.

Schwarzenegger has been able to create bipartisan successes — like the first on-time state budget in six years. At such a critical juncture in California’s history, Schwarzenegger has been good for Sacramento and good for the state. He is always learning and moving forward. Many Democrats like his strong and focused desire to improve our state. There is certainly a chance to elect a Democrat to the governor’s office, and I will support that effort. But in all honesty and for the welfare of our citizens, that chance won’t be until 2010.


Tom McEnery, a Democrat, is a former mayor of San Jose (1983-1990) and a teacher, writer and businessman.

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