It’s hard to believe, but there are less than 211 weeks left before the
Democratic primary for governor. The primary that matters, anyway, the one
between Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom in June of 2010.
Angelides vs. Westly? At this point, nobody really cares. Despite tens of
millions of dollars worth of advertising and months of campaigning, neither
of the 2006 Democratic candidates have been able to elicit much in the way
of voter interest, let alone enthusiasm. Both have developed an almost
surreal ability to avoid saying or doing anything that could even
conceivably engage the average Californian. Instead, they’ve devoting their
time to a game of inside political baseball and policy minutiae that leaves
all but the most hard-core campaign junkies completely uninspired.
The main thrust of Westly’s attack is that Angelides will raise taxes by $10
billion. Angelides defends himself by saying that he will restrain himself
to a $5 billion increase. Accountants across California rush to the
Angelides’ core message is still fairly straightforward. “I hated
Schwarzenegger first, and I hate him more.” Even hard-core Arnold haters
don’t seem particularly captivated by the comparison.
Westly criticizes Angelides for being an evil developer. Angelides hits back
by saying that Westly does the bidding of evil oil companies. Democratic
primary voters don’t seem to care, as almost one-third say they have no
preference between an evil developer and an evil oil-company lackey.
At the same time, the two candidates seem determined to avoid addressing
issues that are of any significant importance to the voters. A debate about
illegal immigration rages across the country: Angelides and Westly stay
silent. Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Legislature agree on the largest
bond package in state history for new roads, school and levees. Angelides
and Westly offer tepid statements of support. Gasoline prices break $3 per
gallon, and neither candidate can even bring himself to do a photo op at a
gas station. Instead, they argue about endorsements, campaign spending and
who went negative against the other first.
In addition to the desultory nature of the primary campaign, there is a
growing suspicion that the combination of the governor’s infrastructure bond
and billions of dollars in new education spending is going to make it very
difficult for either candidate to knock off the incumbent this year. All of
which results in a Democratic primary campaign that is almost unprecedented
in the level of disengagement and disinterest it has produced.
By contrast, California Democratic voters already are kicking the tires of
the 2010 models, watching Villaraigosa and Newsom as the bookend mayors
demonstrate a real knack for drumming up excitement, not only among their
respective constituents but Democratic voters in other parts of the state as
well. Both received much more enthusiastic responses than Westly or
Angelides at their state party convention this spring, and, more
importantly, both seem to be making the early moves that signal an interest
in a campaign for statewide office in the not-too-distant future.
Both mayors have gone out of their way to make themselves available to
statewide and national news media well beyond their home media markets. But
the greatest contrast is the vigor with which both Villaraigosa and Newsom
have thrown themselves into more controversial–and more compelling–policy
Newsom ran for mayor on a platform of addressing San Francisco’s homeless
crisis, which has turned into his signature accomplishment to date. Taking
on the issue of same-sex marriage may cost him support once he decides to
take his political career east of the Bay Bridge, but whether he is brave or
foolhardy or both, there’s no question that Newsom already has left a much
more important mark on the political landscape than either of the current
candidates for governor.
But Newsom has been a shrinking violet compared to Villaraigosa, who has
approached the governance of the city of Los Angeles with a flair far beyond
what either Angelides or Westly is capable. The current debate over illegal
immigration has provided him with a national platform, but Villaraigosa has
used that platform deftly, appearing at pro-immigration rallies but
admonishing high-school students to return to their classrooms. He has
plunged head first into the problem of school violence, and, most notably,
is preparing to take on the teachers unions to assume control of the Los
Angeles Unified School District.
You may agree or disagree with these two mayors on the issues, but they’re
both making waves. They’re taking on difficult issues. In other words,
they’re leading. Which makes the contrast with this year’s overly cautious,
risk-averse, and petty Democratic candidates for governor that much more