The two Democratic candidates for governor, Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides, go into the state Democratic convention that begins today in Sacramento with Westly leading in public and private polls and at odds with Angelides over an independent expenditure advertising drive funded by Angelides’ campaign finance co-chair and former business partner. While calls around the party indicate that Angelides is on the verge of winning the long expected pre-primary endorsement of the state party he once ran, a private Democratic poll of primary voters shows a 10-point lead for Westly.
Meanwhile, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team are breathing a sigh of relief after navigating the difficult straits of a presidential visit to California on Earth Day and successfully launching a series of “theme” weeks, this week being crime. They are also pleased that the Alliance for a Better California labor demonstration outside the fundraiser at his Capitol Park hotel last night, which drew several hundred spirited protesters, lacked the size and intensity of the events which helped drag down the governor’s special election agenda last November.
Westly and Angelides go into this weekend’s convention as very much unfinished products. Neither has presented anything like a complete plan to fund their agendas and balance the budget.
Westly, for his part, acknowledges this, yet emphasizes in his effective TV advertising a proposal — reform of the State Lottery — that he admits would raise only $100 million, which is far less for education than the public thinks. But the idea tests very well in polls and focus groups.
Angelides, who prides himself on being the policy wonk in the race, says he has the “exact” plan to fund his expansive agenda and balance the budget. But more than three weeks after trumpeting his notion of tax hikes for the rich and closing corporate tax loopholes, he has still not produced his plan. His press secretary, Brian Brokaw, is left to say that the treasurer has provided “examples” of what he would do were he to win the governorship.
Neither Democratic candidate is ready for the prime time of running against an incumbent governor who was once the biggest movie star in the world.
Republicans around the former action superstar scoff at Westly’s one term as state controller, saying he has “left no footprints in the snow.” Intriguingly, they don’t talk about his background as one of the key executives at eBay, one of the few truly popular corporations. They are aware of a poll for a group not involved in the primary campaign showing Westly with a decided edge, in the low double digits, over Angelides among swing voters in a general election match-up with Schwarzenegger. But they wonder if he can stand up to the heat of a high-profile campaign.
As for Angelides, while they say they don’t care which Democrat Schwarzenegger ends up facing, his tax-and-spend liberalism and developer background clearly offers them what one calls “a target rich environment.” They respect his greater experience in rough and tumble politics. But they decidedly do not respect his ability as a television campaigner.
As the rivals head into the convention, they do so at loggerheads over their campaign finances. The longtime Democratic powerhouse law firm of Manatt, Phelps, and Phillips (headed by former Democratic National Chairman Chuck Manatt), on behalf of Westly, has filed two complaints with the California Fair Political Practices Commission regarding what he sees as illegal use of independent committees — one of them financed by Angelides’ decades long patron and former business partner, Sacramento development kingpin Angelo Tsakopoulos — to fund the campaign of his opponent for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Treasurer Phil Angelides.
The most intriguing charge concerns Tsakopoulos’s close relationship not only with Angelides personally, but with the Angelides campaign. It seems that the developer, one of California’s richest men, has a lofty campaign title — namely, campaign co-chair, as befits his status as the campaign’s biggest fundraiser — and has been reimbursed more than $40,000 by the campaign for his campaign-related expenses.
I asked the campaign for comment on this. Normally, they get back right away, but in this instance a few hours passed. Finally, I received, not a response to my e-mails and phone messages, but a press release announcing that Angelides was filing a complaint against Westly.
Unlike the Westly complaints, which were attached to the press release and discussed in a media conference call with campaign manager Jude Barry and chief strategist Garry South, the Angelides complaint was not made available. Nor was the law firm involved named in the press release. So it is impossible to evaluate the political counterattack by Angelides, other than to note that he claims Westly violated campaign law by having a “spending imbalance” between his now abandoned controller campaign committee and his gubernatorial campaign committee and that he allegedly paid his gubernatorial campaign staff from the other account. Which the Westly campaign denies.
Shortly after receiving the press release, I received by e-mail a brief statement of response by campaign manager Cathy Calfo to the Manatt law firm’s complaint on behalf of Westly.
I had asked about the role of Tsakopoulos with the campaign. His campaign title, fundraising role, and repeated campaign reimbursements make him, in the Manatt firm’s argument, an “agent” of the campaign.
Here is the Angelides response, from campaign manager Cathy Calfo: “Steve Westly has already poured in $22.5 million from his personal checking account to try to buy the Governor’s race. Angelides 2006 learned of the independent expenditure campaign only through news accounts. The Angelides 2006 campaign co-chairs are Senator Barbara Boxer, Senator Dianne Feinstein, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. Angelo Tsakopoulos, along with hundreds of others, holds an honorary finance council title. Phil Angelides supports clean money laws, and believes that California elections would be better off with serious campaign finance reform that limits the influence of big money and independent expenditures, and guards against the possibility of the super-rich like Steve Westly trying to buy elections.”
There is a lot of rhetoric there to cut through, but it’s instructive to judge for yourself. Tsakopoulos, of course, hardly ranks among “hundreds” of people in his role as the biggest fundraiser in the Angelides campaign. The title of campaign co-chair — technically, as I pointed out to the Westly people on their media conference call, it is really campaign finance co-chair, though in my experience in presidential and gubernatorial politics, politicians sometimes cater to their very biggest fundraisers in this way by omitting the “finance” part of the campaign title — certainly does not belong to hundreds of people. Nor does the response address why Tsakopoulos has been reimbursed for more than $40,000 worth of campaign-related expenses.
I pointed that out to Angelides press secretary Brian Brokaw. He checked with the campaign management and then, in an e-mail, provided this explanation: “It’s reimbursement for use by the treasurer and campaign staff of a private plane owned by Angelo Tsakopoulos for campaign-related travel.”
This does not separate the funder of the Californians for a Better Government independent expenditure campaign from the official Angelides campaign for which he serves as campaign finance co-chair.
Of course, the Fair Political Practices Commission is horribly underfunded for its task, so don’t expect this matter to be resolved any time soon.
While the performance of the two candidates and their campaigns will be instructive as each seeks to develop into a match for Schwarzenegger, not much will be resolved this weekend, though Angelides will probably gain the state party’s endorsement. Phil Angelides was a great state party chairman, taking over when former Governor Jerry Brown (who had, ironically, defeated Steve Westly, to Westly’s ultimately greater good fortune) resigned to run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. George Herbert Walker Bush had just won the Gulf War and things looked bleak for Democrats. Then Bill Clinton went on to win California in 1992, and Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein made it the Year of the Woman, winning both Senate seats. Angelides was important in both their elections, and especially key in the narrow victory of Boxer.
The only other time the state party has made a pre-primary endorsement in a contested primary was in 1990. Then state Attorney General John Van de Kamp — who, like Angelides, had locked up most of the Democratic establishment endorsements — won the endorsement over San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. But Feinstein went on to a big win in the Democratic primary election.