Progressive candidates for governor have a hard time amplifying their calls for economic justice
It's never been easy for progressives to mount a serious campaign for the California governor's office. The high water mark was in 1934 when famous author/activist Upton Sinclair ran on his End Poverty In California platform and got nearly 38 percent of the vote despite being shut out by the major newspapers at the time.
That campaign was cited by both of this year's leading leftist challengers to Gov. Jerry Brown — Green Party candidate Luis Rodriguez and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Cindy Sheehan — who say the goal of ending poverty is more important than ever, but who are also having a hard time getting media coverage for that message.
The latest Field Poll from April 9 shows Brown with a 40-point lead on his closest challenger, conservative Republican Tim Donnelly (57 to 17 percent, with 20 percent undecided). Republicans Andrew Blount and Neel Kashkari were at 3 and 2 percent, respectively, while Rodriguez and Sheehan are among the 11 also-rans who shared the support of 1 percent of the California electorate.
Perhaps that's to be expected given that Brown is a Democrat who pulled the state back from the edge of the fiscal abyss largely by backing the Prop. 30 tax package in 2012, with most of the new revenue coming from increased income taxes on the rich. But to hear Rodriguez and Sheehan tell it, Brown is just another agent of the status quo at a time when the growing gap between rich and poor is the state's most pressing problem.
"We have to put all our resources into ending poverty," Rodriguez told us.
The campaigns that Rodriguez and Sheehan are running seem indicative of the state of progressive politics in California these days, with good work being done on individual issues by an array of groups, but little coordination among them or serious work on the kind of organizing and coalition-building needed to win statewide office.
There is still hope, particularly given California's open primary system, where all Rodriguez or Sheehan need to do is beat the top Republican challenger in June in order to face Brown in a two-person race in November — an outcome that would definitely elevate their progressive message.
"One of our sayings is 'second place wins the race,'" Sheehan told the Guardian.
But at this point, that seems unlikely, a longshot that points to the need for progressive-minded Californians to rebuild the movement and win over new generations of voters, particularly the young people disconnected from electoral politics and largely behind by the economic system.
When we asked Sheehan how her campaign was going, she replied, "It's going." When we pushed for a bit more, she told us, "It's very, very grassroots and we've been trying to get the word out."
And by "very, very grassroots," Sheehan seems to mean that it's not going very well, in terms of fundraising, volunteer support, media exposure, or any of the things a campaign needs to be successful. It's been a disappointment for a woman who started her public political life as a media darling.
The year after Sheehan's son Casey died fighting the Iraq War in 2004, she set up an encampment outside then-President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, instantly becoming a high-profile anti-war activist just as public opinion was turning strongly against the war.
Sheehan parlayed that fame into international activism for peace and other progressive causes, writing a pair of autobiographical/political books, and mounting a primary challenge against then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2008, finishing in second place with about 16 percent of the vote. Sheehan was also the running mate of presidential candidate Roseanne Barr in 2012, although their Peace and Freedom Party ticket didn't appear on the ballot in most states.