Sorting out the results of a primary election that showcased a restive electorate
By Guardian News Staff
After spending more than $70 million, two big corporations failed to convince Californians to vote their way. After spending nearly $70 million, the former head of a big corporation easily convinced Californians to vote her way. And that outcome is not as schizophrenic as it sounds.
On one level, the outcome of the June 8 election was a sign of the anti-corporate anger seething through the California electorate. "BP, Goldman Sachs, PG&E — anything that seems connected to a big corporation is in serious trouble right now," one political insider, who asked not to be named, told us.
Yet two candidates who were very much corporate icons — Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina — won handily in the Republican primaries and now have a real chance to become the state's next governor and junior senator. What's happening? It's fascinating. The voters in the nation's most populous state are pissed off — at big business, at government, at the oil spill, at 10 percent unemployment, at Washington, at Sacramento, at Wall Street. It's an unsettled electorate, uncertain about its future and looking for something new, and definitely despising power.
There's a populist fervor out there, and it's going to define this fall's expensive, dirty, and high-stakes battle for California's future.
Addressing a crowd of supporters gathered at Yoshi's San Francisco on election night, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom — who easily beat opponent Janice Hahn to claim the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor — said he was excited to be part of a crucial political year for the Golden State.
"We're very proud to be in a position to be the Democratic nominee and to work with the other Democratic nominees," Newsom told supporters. He lavished praise on the Democratic nominee for governor, Jerry Brown — the man who just last year he was trying to beat in a primary — telling stories about his father's long relationship with the former governor and expressing his admiration. "I couldn't be more proud to quasi- be on a ticket with Jerry Brown," he said.
The race for lieutenant governor may prove one of the most interesting this election season — and not just because a victory for Newsom would transform San Francisco politics. Newsom's opponent is Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican who enjoys popularity among the growing, influential Latino community, and who Newsom's team said will be a formidable challenge.
The campaign could revolve around an intriguing question. At a time when the Republican Party has been taken over by virulent anti-immigrant politicians — Whitman and Fiorina have both made harsh statements about illegal immigrants and vowed never to support "amnesty" (that is, immigration reform) — will Latino voters go for a white Democrat over a Latino Republican?
"You talk to them about all the same issues you talk to all voters about: jobs, education, and health care," Newsom political strategist Dan Newman said when asked whether Newsom could win over Latino voters. "Latinos, like all voters, will appreciate someone with a proven record of success."
Pollster Ben Tulchin also downplayed the trouble Newsom could encounter in winning the Latino vote. "With what's going on in Arizona, they are very wary of Republicans," Tulchin said, but then added: "We don't want to underestimate the challenge we have. There's never been a moderate Latino on the statewide ballot."
Newsom sounded another alarm. If Whitman decides to help Maldonado, the race will get even tougher. "We're running against Meg Whitman's checkbook," the mayor said.
"Expect to see Meg and Abel together a whole lot in the next few months," one consultant predicted.
If Newsom wins, San Francisco will get a new mayor a year early — and the district-elected Board of Supervisors will choose the person to fill out the last year of Newsom's term. Technically, the current board will still be in office then, but the task may well fall to the next board — which makes the local November elections even more important.
"Everyone is gaming this out and trying to figure out what happens," political consultant Alex Clemens said during a post-election wrap-up at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association office. "There will be a lot of dominoes to fall and deals to be cut."
Meanwhile, Newsom's nomination for lieutenant governor places many San Franciscans in an uncomfortable position, one that was illustrated well by Newsom's victory speech, in which he proudly rejected taxes. Although most San Francisco progressives are disenchanted with their fiscally conservative mayor, few would rather vote for Maldonado.
Tim Paulson, the SF Labor Council president, was at the Newsom event gritting his teeth as he talked about the opportunity progressives now have to work with "a mayor of San Francisco we have issues with." Now, he noted, "There is going to be a real campaign around this man. It could establish a narrative for what California is about."
At Delancey Street on election night, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris talked about getting "tough and smart on crime," addressing gang-related criminal activity but also focusing on corporate criminals. She talked about cracking down on predatory lenders, supporting health care reform, and protecting California's environment. And she made a point of dragging in BP.
"It must be the work of the next attorney general to ensure that the disaster and tragedy that happened in the Gulf of Mexico never happens in California," she said, warning of attacks on AB 32, which set California's 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal into law in 2006.
Of course, Harris now has to take on her southern counterpart, Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley, who is a moderate but comes in with much stronger law enforcement support. If Harris wins, it will go a long way to prove that opposition to the death penalty isn't fatal in California politics, and that voters are finally ready for a women of color as the top law enforcement official — a first in state history.
But she and Newsom will both have to overcome likely attacks for the San Francisco's crime lab scandal, one of many hits to be magnified by the size of Whitman's war chest.
Whitman, who trounced opponent Steve Poizner in the primary, is riding the crest of a new wave of Republican-style "feminism," starring her, Fiorina, and Fox news pundit Sarah Palin as female champions of the right-wing agenda. A few short months ago, it looked as if Brown was in serious trouble. But that was before Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner got into an $85 million bloodbath that left the winner of the GOP primary badly wounded. Whitman wants to play off the populist uprising by portraying herself as an outsider running against a career politician; Poizner gave her a huge scare by hammering her ties to Goldman Sachs.
That Wall Street narrative is one Democrats will push against Whitman and Fiorina. "I think it is stunningly politically tone deaf to nominate two Wall Street CEOs to the top of the ticket," Newman said. Voters will decide whether they are fresh voices with new ideas or corporate hacks who laid off Californians and made fortunes with dubious stock market deals.
Brown leads in the polls — narrowly — but he's vulnerable. He's taken so many stands over so many years and Whitman's fortune will hammer any openings they see. Brown is only slowly getting into campaign mode, but it's no secret what he has to do. If the campaign is about Jerry Brown, unconventional politician, against Meg Whitman, Wall Street darling, then he wins.
But to take advantage of that, Brown has to offer some concrete solutions to the state's problems — and he has to start acting like the progressive he once was. "If I were him, I'd run hard to the left," a consultant who isn't involved in any of the gubernatorial campaigns said.
The conventional wisdom had Barbara Boxer in trouble, too — but she's a savvy campaigner who has beaten the odds before. And while the senator appears ripe for attack — almost 30 years in Washington, a voting record perhaps a bit more liberal than the state as a whole — her opponent, Fiorina, has baggage too.
For starters, Fiorina's entire pitch is that she — like Whitman — would bring business-world savvy to politics. But as CEO of HP, "she was about perks and pink slips," Newman said. "She laid off Californians and shipped those jobs overseas while enriching herself."
Her own primary pushed her far to the right (at one point, in an embarrassing sop to the National Rifle Association, she actually argued that suspected terrorists on the federal no-fly list should be able to buy handguns). And speaking of feminist values, her anti-abortion positions won't help her in a decidedly pro-choice state.
The defeat of Proposition 16 will go down in history as one of the most remarkable campaigns ever. It was, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi noted, "a righteous win:" The No on 16 campaign spent less than $100,000 and still captured 52 percent of the vote. Another narrow corporate-interest measure, Mercury Insurance's Prop. 17, faced a similar fate.
One reason: PG&E's $50 million campaign backfired, making voters suspicious of the company's propaganda. Another: it lost overwhelmingly in its own service area, the company rejected by those who know it best.
Now PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, who pushed to mount the expensive campaign, must return to his shareholders empty-handed — and that's going to cause problems. "I assume the leadership of PG&E will be called to task," Clemens said. "They truly rolled the dice."
The day after the election, PG&E shares dropped 2.2 percent, a possible sign of shaken investor confidence. Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a nonprofit that worked on the No on 16 effort, described the situation succinctly. "Peter Darbee's got egg on his face," she said. "Big-time."
Mirkarimi has witnessed other battles with PG&E, and said this probably wouldn't be the last. "PG&E, every time we want to have a seat at the table, tries to take us out, like assassins," he said. "If they were smart, they would take us up on what we asked many years ago, and that is to abide by peaceful coexistence."
On the statewide level, the bold and expensive deceptions pushed by PG&E and Mercury Insurance were countered by only a handful of super-committed activists and a broad cross-section of newspaper editorials, a reminder that newspapers — battered by the economy and technological changes — are neither dead nor irrelevant.
One of the wild cards of the election was Prop. 14, which will eliminate party primaries for state offices — and potentially shake up the state's entire political structure. "This is a big deal even if we don't know how it's going to play out," consultant David Latterman said at the SPUR event.
Interestingly, the only two counties that voted No on 14 were the most progressive — San Francisco — and the most conservative, Orange.
Progressives did well in San Francisco, expanding their majority on the Democratic County Central Committee. "In an environment where it was about hundreds of millions of dollars from PG&E and Meg Whitman and Chris Kelly outspending us, we showed that San Francisco is San Francisco and we support San Francisco values," DCCC chair Aaron Peskin told us.
Money used to define the debates in San Francisco, but the dominant narratives are now being written by the coalition of tenants, environmentalists, workers, social justice advocates, and others who backed a progressive slate of DCCC candidates, which took 18 of the 24 seats on a body that makes policy and funding decisions for the local Democratic Party.
"This time it was the coalition that really made the difference," DCCC winner Michael Bornstein said on election night. "Frankly, our people worked harder."
Board of Supervisors President David Chiu agreed, telling us, "For the Central Committee, the message is people power wins."
The lesson from this election is that people are starting to get wise to corporate deceptions. And they're realizing that with hard work and smart coalition-building, the people can still prevail.
Steven T. Jones, Rebecca Bowe, Sarah Phelan, and Tim Redmond contributed to this report.