What’s in a name? If you’re Phil Angelides, plenty.

“What’s in a name?” the fair heroine asks her star-crossed lover in
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name
would smell as sweet,” Juliet concludes.

But that was before anybody met Phil Angelides. The state treasurer and
Democratic gubernatorial candidate has a long history of gratuitous
name-calling–and no one would ever mistake his over-the-top epithets and
nasty appellations for a sweet-smelling posie.

The snarky Angelides once referred to Ronald Reagan as a racist. Reagan may
have been oblivious to the plight of the minority underclasses, but few who
knew him could think of this avuncular optimist as being racially motivated
or biased.

In 1991, as chair of the California Democratic Party, Angelides compared
Gov. Pete Wilson to David Duke. Now, along with most Democrats, Wilson is
not one of my favorite former governors. But it’s a tad of a stretch to
liken him to a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan–a comment a Los
Angeles Times editorial termed “ugly” and “uncalled for.”

Just last fall, when the Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the same-sex
marriage bill, Angelides put out a press release equating Schwarzenegger to
both George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. I’ve been pretty critical of Arnold
since he took office, but likening this generally moderate officeholder to
two hard-core Southern segregationists is, well, a bit hyperbolic.

But Angelides’ name-calling and vitriol hasn’t been limited just to those in
the other party.

In 1991, while serving as state Democratic chair, he publicly described
Democratic United States senators as “wimps.”

In the ’94 Democratic primary for state treasurer, Angelides ran ads against
former state Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti outrageously accusing
this very decent man and honorable Democrat of condoning the murder of
abortion doctors and of being a crook.

Almost every California newspaper roundly condemned Angelides’
character-assassination campaign. The San Jose Mercury News called his
tactics “rapacious.” Longtime Los Angeles Times political columnist George
Skelton denounced one Angelides’ ad as “odorous” and “one of the sleaziest
in years.” The Orange County Register labeled him a “smearmeister.” The San
Francisco Chronicle blasted the negative campaign as “reprehensible” and “a
new low,” and compared the ads to the infamous Willie Horton spot from the
’88 presidential campaign. The Los Angeles Daily News called it “hysterical
mudslinging.” The Fresno Bee condemned Angelides’ campaigning as

Even one of Angelides’ predecessors as state Democratic Party chair, Peter
Kelly, denounced Angelides in a letter as “disgusting.”

And the nonpartisan California Journal awarded Angelides their “Junkyard Dog
of the Year” award for his campaign’s “boorishness,” accusing him of
“ringing a slime-coated cowbell.”

Well, you get the drift–arf, arf.

Now, fast forward to the current campaign, only the second time Angelides
has ever faced a viable Democratic primary opponent. Angelides has tagged
Steve Westly as a “Benedict Arnold” for joining Gov. Schwarzenegger–and
every other major Democratic officeholder in the state except Angelides–in
2004 in support of the deficit-reduction bond that kept the state out of
default. Other charming terms he has laid on Westly for this same supposed
offense are “Arnold Lite” and “Arnold’s Twin.”

But at the two candidates’ third and final debate, Angelides really decided
to go postal. In the course of just one hour, he likened Westly to, of all
people, Richard Nixon, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh–and asked
Westly, a 25-year Democratic activist and former party officer, to his face
whether he wasn’t running in the wrong party primary.

Hell, for that matter, Angelides has even called me names. At the state
Democratic convention last month, he denounced me by name as the “King of
Mean.” (I guess this is a backhanded compliment coming from a guy the
Washington Post once called a “champion smear artist.”)

I suppose we really shouldn’t be surprised. In 1991, Angelides told the
Modesto Bee he admired the Republican attack machine that made mincemeat of
his pal, Michael Dukakis. “Sometimes you’ve got to scream at someone, hit
them over the head with a 2-by-4 or punch them,” he told the Los Angeles
Times that same year. The next year, he asked the St. Petersburg Times, “Do
I think it is legitimate for us to punch [Republicans] in the groin?

Absolutely.” In April of ’92, he promised the New York Times that in the
upcoming presidential campaign, “We’re going to play tough. Let me tell you
right now, it’s going to be a mean, vicious, ugly campaign.” And it
certainly would have been had Angelides, instead of Bill Clinton, had his
way. (Probably a losing one, too.)

But did this supposedly brilliant fellow learn nothing whatsoever from the
near self-immolation last year of Schwarzenegger, the man Angelides most
loves to hate? The governor’s quick and almost-disastrous slide into public
opprobrium came about in large part because he promised to be a bipartisan
problem-solver, but quickly metamorphosed into a partisan name-caller.

Democrats were “girlie men,” “the Three Stooges” and “losers.” Teachers and
their state organization were “those poor little guys.” Labor unions were
“evil.” Nurses were “special interests,” and he would “kick their butts.”

In the Arnold biography Fantastic, author Laurence Leamer observes of
Schwarzenegger’s practice against his bodybuilding opponents: “It was not
enough for Arnold to defeat his opponent. He had to taunt and denigrate him
until there was little left but bad memories.” Stripped of the pecs and abs,
this could be a perfect description of Phil Angelides and his campaign

So, if voters were fed up with a partisan name-caller last year, why would
they take to a bipartisan name-caller this year?

To be Phil or not to be Phil. That’s the soul-searching question Democrats
must grapple with as they choose their nominee in the June primary.

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