One year from today, primary election voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, will choose their candidates for governor of California.
Seldom in California’s history has there been an election with stakes as high for the people of the state. A global recession, felt more acutely here than elsewhere in the nation, has crippled families and tax revenues alike, exposing for all to see the economic and political decay at the core of state government.
With about eight in 10 voters saying California is on the wrong track, the battered economy and political gridlock in Sacramento have combined to create a dark and turbulent atmosphere. Candidates who seek to lead the Golden State will be facing angry, frustrated, pitchfork-wielding voters.
The political unrest and budget meltdowns of recent years, among other things, have triggered a wave of reform efforts aimed at the Capitol unprecedented since the beginning of the last century.
Calls for a constitutional convention, demands for sweeping changes in taxation and the basic structure of government, plus efforts to pass initiatives that change the mechanics of governance all will roil the waters in 2010. That’s not to mention continuing fallout from the Proposition 8 gay marriage battle, conflicts over the embattled public schools and institutions of higher education, or concerns about California’s failing water and infrastructure systems.
Amid this treacherous landscape, candidates will face widespread skepticism about whether California is governable at all, and whether or not it really matters who is elected to succeed the failed Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At Calbuzz, we think it does matter: Governors put people in charge of huge agencies and departments and small bureaucracies, they appoint judges, manage relations with trading partners and neighbors, shape the budget and the legislative agenda, wield the blue pencil, rally the people and set the tone for civic discourse.
But if voters are unhappy with the trajectory of the state and demand “change,” what will that mean next year in California? In 2008, Barack Obama personified change – a radical shift from all things Bush-Cheney: easy to identify, easy to encapsulate.
But in 2010, in California, will change mean competence and common sense? Reform and realignment? Private sector values and principles? Will it mean a change in party or a generational shift or both? After Arnold, can another rich Republican outsider stand for change? Can a septuagenarian lifelong pol challenge the status quo?
We’ve been watching the candidates closely since launching Calbuzz a few months ago and offer this year-out scorecard as a handicappers’ guide to the meta-messages they’re pitching.
Jerry Brown: Common sense, for a change
(Or: I made all my mistakes the first time)
An All-World political gymnast, General Jerry is trying to invent a brand-new campaign trick by becoming both the youngest and oldest person to be elected governor of California.
Casting an uncharacteristically critical eye on parts of his 1975-82 record as governor (when he was labeled – unfairly – as Gov. Moonbeam), Brown argues that he’s older and wiser in terms of management skill and style, but still miles ahead of the curve in seeing the need for social and economic changes that he was mocked for advocating decades ago – like clean, green energy, for starters.
Brown’s biggest strengths remain his singular intelligence and ability to graft big ideas onto public policy; his greatest weakness is his well-earned reputation as a political chameleon willing to strike almost any stance on almost any issue that brings political benefit.
Gavin Newsom: I tweet therefore I am.
(Or: We’re moving to the left, whether you like it or not)
Young, bright and attractive, Prince Gavin is positioning himself to run an Obama Lite campaign of generational change, promising new ideas, new approaches and new outcomes to old and intractable California problems. He’s also running the risk of fighting the last campaign war by casting Brown as Hillary to his reprised Obama.
Newsom has had a moderately successful term-and-a-half as San Francisco’s mayor, but it remains to be seen whether his shining City on the Hill portrayal of his record stands up to the scrutiny of a long campaign (here’s hoping his hometown paper provides some answers soon). And it’s an open question whether much of anything that happens in San Francisco translates to voters outside the Bay Area’s liberal Democratic precincts.
Newsom’s biggest strength is the energy and enthusiasm with which he reels off reams of sound-good, feel-good proposals for improving California’s quality of life – organic veggie gardens at City Hall!! – while his greatest weakness is his tendency to overweening arrogance, which he casually displayed by kissing off every Californian who disagreed with him on gay marriage.
Antonio Villaraigosa: Si puedo – Yes I can
Or: (I’ll chase the governorship — unless I keep chasing skirts)
On paper, Tony V looks like a top contender for the Democratic nomination, with a strong base built on a pro-labor record and appeal to the ethnic pride of California’s emerging Latino majority. In the arena, however, he’s been looking more and more like he’s got a glass jaw, as his underwhelming re-election margin has been followed by a series of political and personal embarrassments.
Once seen as a rising star, Villaraigosa backed the wrong horse in the Democratic presidential race (as did Newsom), and then saw his standing with West Side liberals and unions decline as he seemed more interested in celebrity and self-aggrandizement than in the substance of governing and wrestling with L.A.’s tangled finances. Recent disclosures about a new fling with yet another pulchritudinous T.V. reporter have pushed him dangerously close to late-night comedy territory.
Villaraigosa’s biggest strength is his star-power potential to make history as a Latino governor who also repackages Democratic values for a green and digital age; his greatest weakness is the growing perception that he lacks the seriousness of purpose to be governor, or even the fuego en el vientre to try.
Meg Whitman: A billionaire businesswoman rides to your rescue
(Or: Once I’m elected, everyone in Sacramento will do exactly what I say)
The latest in a string of successful private sector executives who’ve sought to start second careers at the top of the political ladder, Whitman made a bundle in her years at eBay, and is calculating that voters are so sick of the Sacramento status quo they’ll beseech her to bring business savvy to bear on straightening out state government.
So far, eMeg’s proved only that she can court favor with the national media and hire battalions of high-priced campaign consultants. But she hasn’t found much to say about California’s problems that go beyond Republican platitudes of the last three decades. Her aversion to mixing it up with media types, at least those with some understanding of the state’s problems, quickly became a campaign meme, but for now at least she seems smugly satisfied to stay aloof from the gritty give-and-take of authentic politics.
Calbuzz wants to know, for example, what makes Her Megness think her business career gives her the ability to handle an assemblyman from Turlock or somewhere who says, “Sure, I’ll vote for your budget, as soon as you give the community college in the district a new swimming pool.”
Whitman’s biggest strength is her potential to analyze and articulate fresh approaches to chronic economic and political problems; her greatest weakness is her failure to come close to doing so, at least to date, as she keeps trying to sound authentic while masking her moderate politics with talking points borrowed from the right.
Steve Poizner: The outsider’s insider
(Or: Neener Neener –I’m better than the other guys)
Like Whitman, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner struck it rich in Silicon Valley, but unlike his even better-heeled rival, he at least had the modesty to get elected to something before pronouncing himself ready to take the states’ top job.
The Poison Commissioner’s promise to bring gimlet-eyed, bottom-line acumen to the business of governing is also not unlike Whitman’s pitch, but it’s tempered by a more seasoned and clear-eyed notion of what he’s getting himself into. With a brisk and brook-no-nonsense style, Poizner approaches his own right-wing pandering from a less ethereal perch than Whitman, which could sell with fed-up voters hankering for a governor who acts more like an IRS auditor who works for them than a political celebrity who wants to work the room.
Poizner’s biggest strength is his self-disciplined focus on a core conservative message; his greatest weakness is that his constant aggressive attacks on rivals can make him sound like a grumpy old man with a tin-foil hat and a pocket protector.
Tom Campbell: I actually know what I’m talking about
(Or: I’d be a great governor if only someone would appoint me)
With the squeaky cleanest, best-and-brightest resume of the bunch, Dudley Do-Right can claim the mantle of substantive specificity (or specific substance) in the race. He’s the only candidate on either side who combines the knowledge and courage (or maybe foolishness) to get down and dirty with the details of ways and means to pull state government out of the primeval ooze into which it’s sunk.
Campbell’s moderate-to-liberal positions on most social issues are way beyond squishy for Republican primary voters, and he simply doesn’t have the table stakes to play with Whitman and Poizner when it comes to mounting a costly media air war. To have a chance, he’s going to have to catch fire as the candidate of free media, a plain-spoken, straight-from-the-shoulder kind of guy, who roams the land, from radio talk show to radio talk show, telling voters unpleasant truths about the way it really is.
His biggest strength is his outsized intelligence and under-the-hood understanding of how government actually works; his greatest weakness is his proven inability to close the deal in a statewide race or to translate his big brain Eagle Scout act into an emotional connection with voters.
Calbuzz has said for months that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – who could likely have the Democratic nomination in a walk-over — won’t make a run. And she admitted as much as few weeks back. But it’s never too late for a late entry wildcard to juice a little jolt of excitement into what is, truth be told, a candidate field a few degrees south of scintillating.
The Reps don’t have a true-believing movement conservative running, so there’s plenty of room on the right for another GOP entrant. On the other side, are attractive and ambitious Dems – Jack O’Connell comes to mind – really going to cede the field to this crowd?
The next governor cannot be a caretaker. He or she must have the vision and raw political skill to guide California through the structural and fiscal changes demanded by the crumbling, contorted and corrupted system that state government has become.
As we’ll continue to argue – California’s challenge is to restore democracy where institutional chaos now reigns. It will be the next governor’s job to lead us into a new era.