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THIS SHOULD BE a golden time for California Democrats. They control both chambers of the Legislature. The state's Republican governor has low (though improving) performance ratings. And they have two gubernatorial candidates with the resources to mount a substantial challenge in the fall.But there is no gold. There are only the leaden front-runners, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly — two rich men who spend so much time raising more money and clawing at each other that it's hard to tell them apart.
Angelides calls himself the "anti-Arnold" and points out that as treasurer, he stood against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deficit reduction plan. He contends that California's structural budget shortfall must be resolved in part by considering (as a "last resort," of course) raising taxes on the wealthy. Westly labels himself a different kind of Democrat and notes that he teamed with Schwarzenegger to promote the governor's recovery plan. He says raising taxes would bring disaster and must be avoided (except, of course, as a "last resort"). Other than that, their policy differences are so minuscule as to be without meaning, although they debate them fiercely.
Both are competent state officials with roots deep in the party establishment and forays into the private sector. Angelides ran for office in his native Sacramento even before graduating from college, then went to work at the Capitol before becoming a real estate developer. He returned to politics in the 1990s, as chairman of the state party, and was elected treasurer in 1998. Westly likes to emphasize his early role at eBay and his academic career at Stanford, but he too worked his way through the state party ranks and lost a race for party chairman himself in 1989. In 2002, Westly used part of his eBay fortune to mount a campaign for state controller and won.
Either of the two ought to pose a formidable challenge to Schwarzenegger. But Angelides and Westly are colorless and uninspiring, not because they aren't movie action heroes but because they are unable to connect with the average nonmillionaire Californian.
In a sense, they are interchangeable with the other Democrats termed out of statewide office this year who are scrambling for powerbases in other, sometimes surprising, posts. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is the front-runner for insurance commissioner. Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi is running for lieutenant governor. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is on the ballot for treasurer. It's as if they're playing a game of musical chairs — but agreed beforehand to arrange their landing spots.
The Times is not endorsing in those primaries but will weigh in for the November general election. Nor do we decide today whether Schwarzenegger deserves another term. That, too, is a question for this fall. But we want the Democrats to put forward the best they can offer, to select on June 6 the candidate most likely to give Californians a healthy debate and a clear choice in November.
That candidate is Phil Angelides. He may lack charisma, but he doesn't lack conviction, and he has been unwavering in his criticism of quick fixes and false budget promises. He has more experience in state office than Westly, whose "fix-it" approach to government is appealing at first but on closer inspection appears shallow.
Angelides may be dull, but he is not shallow. His commitment to healthcare reform, education, environmental protection and fiscal responsibility are real. We are wary of his quick jump to taxes but acknowledge some respect for his willingness to tell it as he sees it. We are not fans of his website's childish anti-Schwarzenegger cartoon. But we are confident Angelides is better than his website. He is the best Democratic candidate to challenge the governor and debate the future of California.