September 30, 2009
Fun in the California Sun, 2010 Edition

The upcoming race for governor of California looks likely to supply our reputation with a new stash of wacky. (Sorry, I’m reading Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and I’m finding myself imitating him.)

We have the classic California Republican in Meg Whitman, a person so obsessed with politics that she first registered to vote at the tender age of 46. She’s recently explained that she was focused on her family and her husband’s job. Apparently being CEO of eBay didn’t take up much of her attention; in any case she seems rarely to have found time to vote even after registering. This might be an issue.

Her positions are infused with a signature combination of naivete and calculation, smarter and more polished than Sarah Palin, who bested her in McCain’s VP sweepstakes, but about the same level of emotional development. Since she once worked for Bain & Co., Mitt Romney’s hideout, it’s not surprising that she’s against gay marriage and supported Prop. 8, though her fans would probably point out that she does support civil unions. Her positions on environment and energy are difficult to determine from her website, which contains the kind of slurpy gobbledygook shifty marketers use to bamboozle the unwary.

For example, on a website that seems to omit any links named Positions or Issues such as most politicians revel in, she promises as Governor to

  • Make California the global model for promoting energy efficiency and new energy technologies for worldwide export
  • Increase the state’s own energy supply and production by further diversifying our energy sources, including nuclear, biomass, wind and solar
  • Modernize our infrastructure to distribute our energy sources more economically and efficiently

Hard to point to anything to disagree with there, or even to pick out any solid point at all. But we might expect to get a sense of her position by noting the three sources her website links to for news about energy issues: the liberal beacon Orange County Register, the friend of the working man Entreprenuer.com, and the oft-quoted Riverside Press-Enterprise. On the environment page, there are two links: another to the Press-Enterprise, and one to a San Jose Mercury News article titled “Meg Whitman: To create jobs, curb environmental regulation”. Claiming that job creation is her overall top priority, she proposes to do so by cutting taxes and reducing regulation. In other words, it’s the same old redistribution from the poor to the rich that the business wing of the Republican party has been hawking for decades.

Whitman’s likely opponents are the current insurance commissioner aptly named Steve Poizner, who apparently has a shot because the industry he regulates will back him to the hilt, with former Congressman Tom Campbell representing the occasionally-rational branch of the Republican party, whose campaign appears quixotic for exactly that reason.

Not surprisingly, the Democrats are stoked about running against anyone from that group. They’re still high from the last election, in which Obama more than doubled Kerry’s margin over the Republicans, 24% to 10%. So the big names are already circling.


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San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is strongly supported by the Clinton wing, without whose assistance he probably would have lost to his Green opponent Matt Gonzales (as it was, Newsom won 53%-47%, about 11,000 votes). Newsom’s probably best known for marrying gay couples on the steps of city hall because he decided it should be legal, a judgement with which the courts in the end disagreed. Such notoriety would seem to guarantee him a certain base of support, and an equally solid base of opposition. He also has a bit of a weight to carry among the family-values crowd, having divorced his first wife two years into his mayoralty, and had an affair with his secretary who was also the wife of his campaign chairman and good friend, before marrying an actress, who delivered their first child less than a month ago. In San Francisco that kind of lifestyle costs you nothing. But statewide you face quite a different electorate, and calling yourself a Diane Feinstein-style Democrat isn’t likely to make up for the sexual peccadillos and the gay-marriage thing. Or the lack of experience.

The other announced candidate is current attorney general Jerry Brown, former governor, mayor of Oakland, and failed candidate for Senate and President, as well as son of a governor and brother of a state treasurer. He’s not term-limited like Schwarzeneger because the term-limits law took effect later.

I’d love to see a debate between Brown and Whitman. Brown is a smooth politician, but he’s much more than that. I voted for him in 1976, and I would have voted for a Democrat in 1992 if Brown had been the nominee. As a politician he’s quirky, generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but not always. He has a long record of actions that progressives and liberals generally applaud, from opposition to the Vietnam War and capital punishment to prosecuting Standard Oil of California, ITT, Gulf Oil, and Mobil for breaking campaign-finance laws, to repealing the state’s oil depletion allowance (essentially a tax break for taking oil out of the ground), to appointing the first black, female, and Latino judges to the California Supreme Court. Although the sentiment is by no means universal, Brown is widely credited with leading a turn-around in Oakland.

He’s also taken some contrary paths, such as inviting the Marines to stage “Urban Warrior” war games in the defunct Oakland Army Base, and offering some support to charter schools, one of which was military. It’s not unknown for progressives to complain that he’s too pro-business, though his record as attorney general has somewhat calmed those waters.

In San Francisco and the Bay Area there’s a sizable gay vote, and California is fairly similar. So Newsom should be able to get a big chunk of that bloc, right? Not necessarily. As attorney general, Brown took the unusual decision not to defend Prop. 8; normally the AG argues in support of laws passed by the voters. That was a relatively courageous act; he took a stand when he could easily have argued that his office required him to defend the peoples’ law. After all, he makes a somewhat similar argument about the death penalty: despite his strong opposition to it — as governor he vetoed a death-penalty law but was overridden — his office requires him to follow the law. But with Prop. 8, he decided that the peoples’ law was bullshit, and he officially refused to back it. Like Newsom, his actions were made moot by the state Supreme Court, but like Newsom, he made his political point.

All in all, Brown has a record of acting on real social problems, whatever one thinks of those acts, and of being willing to consider different paradigms. Both are rare in these declining days of empire when it’s easier to kick the can down the road. Nor were these merely symbolic actions, as a result of which they generated real constituencies. Which is probably why Brown is currently favored to take the Democratic nomination and the governership. I’ve figured for decades that if he lived long enough for the pendulum to swing back toward the left he’d be perfectly positioned. Maybe now’s the time.

What kind of official portrait would he choose this time?

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at September 30, 2009 07:01 PM
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I thought Dianne Feinstein was going to be running for governor. In fact, I was looking forward to it, in hopes of a more liberal replacement senator. Are you dashing my hopes?

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on September 30, 2009 9:06 PM

Feinstein might decide to enter the race but right now she'd have an uphill climb. Personally I'd be surprised to see her run again for anything; she's made some really unpopular votes and left it hard to tell where her base really is..

Plus, supposing she won, who'd appoint her replacement?

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on October 1, 2009 5:10 AM

I wouldn't overestimate Gavin Newsom's popularity among gay San Franciscans. By now everyone in SF has reason to dislike his style of government by press conference. His support for gay marriage, although gratifying, was a calculated button-pushing symbolic gesture, not a sign of anything so unprofitable as a long-term interest in human rights.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on October 3, 2009 12:23 AM

Yeah, I agree with Martha. Aware citizens realize how calculated Newsom's strategy was. Not that calculation is all bad, at least he calculated in the right direction. That time.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on October 3, 2009 12:58 AM
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