Even amid the oddities of California’s newfangled political season, one pair of possible candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis has emerged as especially intriguing: political commentator Arianna Huffington and her ex-husband, Michael Huffington, a former congressman.
No less than Davis himself remarked on the novelty of potential bids by the onetime Senate-candidate-turned-onetime-movie producer and his ex-wife, a former Newt Gingrich-Republican-turned-left-of-center-independent. “That’d be sort of interesting,” he said with a chuckle.
Last week, Michael Huffington took out papers to run in the Oct. 7 recall election, a move that surprised many political strategists who have seen little of the former congressman since he spent $28 million in a losing bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994. On Tuesday, a spokesman said Huffington would not grant any interviews until he decides whether to run.
For her part, Arianna Huffington is being drafted by fans who have set up a “Run Arianna Run!” Web site that urges the author and pundit to put her name on the ballot. On Sunday night, she gathered several dozen politically minded friends at her Brentwood home to discuss jumping into the race. She said she would do so only if Democrat Feinstein does not get in. She also has said that she will not run if her ex-husband does, because of the strain that the competition would put on their daughters, ages 12 and 14.
Although she calls the recall effort “a Republican power grab,” Huffington said she could represent an alternative choice in an election that so far includes only conservatives and a Green Party leader among the major candidates.
“People are very frustrated with politics as usual,” she said Tuesday from Aspen, Colo., where she was attending a conference sponsored by Fortune magazine. “That opportunity which is presented by the vacuum in this election is really what I find very appealing.... The very fact that it’s going to be chaotic presents an opportunity to run a populist campaign with a lot of grass-roots support.”
For now, her supporters are keeping their fingers crossed that her ex-husband bows out.
“He doesn’t have a base, while she’s got a huge base of support,” said San Francisco activist Van Jones, who took a leave from his nonprofit organization to start an Internet campaign urging Arianna Huffington to run. “I think he would not only be a spoiler to a lot of people with hope, but the worst ex-husband in the history of California.”
After an 11-year marriage, the Huffingtons divorced in June 1997. About a year later Michael Huffington revealed publicly that he is gay. They share custody of their daughters and remain on good terms, friends said. He lives in a Wilshire Boulevard condominium in Westwood and has been spotted at the salons and fund-raisers she frequently hosts at her home.
But the two have not discussed their possible campaigns, according to Arianna Huffington, who said she would decide about the race in the next week. (Until she decides, The Times has suspended publication of her syndicated column.)
After his bitter contest against Feinstein in 1994, Michael Huffington, a former banker and one-term congressman from Santa Barbara, briefly ran a film production company. In 1998, he co-chaired the tobacco tax initiative, campaigning for the measure in conservative parts of the state.
Then, last Friday, Huffington spokesman Bruce Nestande released a statement saying that Huffington had paid the $3,500 filing fee and pulled the paperwork to be a candidate in the recall election.
He " “feels qualified by his background in finance to successfully deal with this deepening financial crisis and re-establish California’s fiscal integrity,” Nestande said in the statement released last week.
In a brief phone interview Tuesday, Nestande declined to answer any other questions about Huffington’s candidacy, saying that the former congressman would make a decision in the next week. He said Huffington is now a businessman, but he would not elaborate.
GOP consultant Ken Khachigian, a key strategist in Huffington’s 1994 Senate race, said he talked to him about a year ago to see if he wanted his files from that race. He didn’t, so Khachigian shredded them.
“I never would have guessed he would ever want to run for public office again,” said Khachigian, who is now running U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa’s gubernatorial bid in the recall election.
But Republican consultant Ed Rollins, who also helped run Huffington’s Senate bid, said he was not surprised that Huffington is floating his name, despite his recent absence from politics.
“Michael didn’t want to be a senator at the end of the day, and I asked him one time afterward what he did want to do, and he said, ‘I’d really like to be governor,’ ” Rollins said.
“I don’t think he has a shot,” Rollins added. “I think the reality is, it would take a lot of money to remind people of who he was.”
His ex-wife, however, already has a substantial constituency.
Arianna Huffington has never held office -- although she did stand in for her then-husband during a 1994 Senate campaign debate -- but she has gained fame as a prolific author, nationally syndicated columnist, and television and radio commentator.
“One could make the argument that he was in politics first, but she’s been much more active than he has in recent years,” said columnist Robert Scheer, who spars with Huffington on the KCRW radio show “Left, Right & Center.”
Once a supporter of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution, she now describes herself as an independent. This year, she released a book called “Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America,” which made the New York Times bestseller list. She also has campaigned against the proliferation of SUVs.
Some have questioned her transformation from a Republican society hostess -- when Michael Huffington was a congressman -- to an outspoken advocate for liberal causes.
But Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said Huffington has remained true to who she is.
“She’s evolved, but every step she’s taken, she has the courage of her convictions,” he said.