Democrats Indulge in Gov.-Bashing
Emboldened by the slide in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity, California Democrats took turns pounding their chief Republican adversary Saturday as tensions erupted at their state convention among three men vying to challenge him if he seeks reelection.
The combative, at times jubilant, mood among more than 2,000 delegates and party leaders at the Los Angeles Convention Center offered a stark contrast to the party’s grim San Jose gathering a year ago in the recall’s aftermath, when Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings were stratospheric.
This time, a parade of Democrats mocked Schwarzenegger for pursuing an agenda that they described as tailored to his campaign donors at the expense of working Californians, the elderly, disabled and poor.
Dangling over the crowd was a banner showing a stern Schwarzenegger alongside a caption asking ominously: “He’s attacking firefighters, nurses, teachers and cops. Are you next?”
That theme -- broadcast for weeks in millions of dollars worth of television ads that have helped drag Schwarzenegger’s poll rating downward -- ran through dozens of speeches by Democrats, many of them angling for higher office.
State Treasurer Phil Angelides, a candidate for governor, reveled in his status as the state’s first prominent Democrat to speak out aggressively against Schwarzenegger. He took veiled shots at those who shied from taking on the governor at the outset of his term.
“This is not a time for accommodation,” Angelides shouted from a stage to party loyalists on the convention floor. “It’s a time for indignation. This is no time to condone. It’s a time to condemn.”
State Controller Steve Westly, who launched his own campaign for Schwarzenegger’s job this week, was an apparent target of Angelides. Westly’s caustic tone marked a striking shift from his friendly joint appearances with Schwarzenegger to promote the governor’s budget proposals on the March 2004 ballot, a campaign that could prove problematic for Westly in the Democratic primary.
“It’s time to send Mr. Schwarzenegger back to Hollywood to do those B-rated pictures,” said Westly, whom the governor often joked last year could play his “twin brother” in a sequel to “Twins,” the comedy starring Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
Another gubernatorial contender, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, was tied up at an Oakland funeral Saturday and missed much of the convention. But in a telephone interview, he too criticized Schwarzenegger, saying he and many other Californians were “conned” into voting for him.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Lockyer, who accused Schwarzenegger of breaking promises on supporting public education and easing the partisanship that has mired state government.
Despite the mood Saturday, party leaders and strategists said they had no illusions about Schwarzenegger’s capacity to bounce back from his current political troubles.
“We know that he’s not in the intensive care unit,” state Democratic Chairman Art Torres said.
But they took comfort in what they described as a shift in Schwarzenegger’s public image from that of a nonpartisan advocate of the people to that of a distinctly Republican politician in a state that has strongly favored Democrats for more than a decade.
Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said Democrats were “spending all of their time attacking the governor, but meanwhile they offer no solutions to the problems in California that need to be fixed. The very issues that were the impetus for the recall still need to be addressed, and all Democrats can do is hold a party and gloat.”
Democrats are far from shut out of power in California. They hold eight out of 10 statewide elected offices, control both houses of the Legislature, and hold 33 of the state’s 53 seats in the House of Representatives. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer won reelection last year by 2.4 million votes, and no well-known Republican has stepped forward to challenge her fellow Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is seeking reelection next year.
At a delegate luncheon Saturday, Feinstein stuck to national issues, vowing to fight to preserve Social Security, expand stem-cell research and protect the privacy of personal data. She did not mention her reelection campaign to the delegates, but said in an interview that she would “absolutely” seek another term.
Beyond the Senate and gubernatorial contests, prospective candidates in other June 2006 Democratic primaries were jockeying for attention at the convention.
Among them was Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, now running for attorney general. Supporters of the former governor circulated fliers showing him conferring solemnly with Mother Teresa and walking down a dirt road with farm labor icon Cesar E. Chavez.
Another candidate for attorney general, Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, described Brown to Democratic crowds as “the state’s past” and himself as “the state’s future.”
“The attorney general’s office is not a consolation prize for a long political career,” Delgadillo said of the former governor and secretary of state.
But the party’s main focus was Schwarzenegger. Photographs of the swimsuit-clad governor -- looking more plump than muscular -- made the rounds, with one version superimposed on a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.
A DVD shown on the convention floor included snippets from a cartoon depicting Schwarzenegger as a voracious eater of fruit from a “special interest” money tree. Among the fruit he gobbles are “Car Dealers” and “Wall Street.” In the same spirit, the party’s website features a doctored photo of Schwarzenegger, his nose stretched like Pinocchio’s, saying: “Broken Promises: How many lies has Arnold told?”
“I’m a girlie man,” state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) told the convention crowd, borrowing a line that Schwarzenegger has used to insult Democratic lawmakers. “I’d like to say how proud I am to stand before all the special interests -- teachers, nurses, child-care workers -- who provide the service to the state of California.”
“Those special interests, we will stand with any time,” said Perata, whose campaign fundraising and other activities are under investigation by a federal grand jury.
Much of the Democrats’ ire stems from the special election that Schwarzenegger has vowed to call for November if lawmakers block his agenda. Voters would be asked to consider merit pay for teachers to replace seniority, a new system for drawing the state’s political districts and automatic state spending restraints.
Teachers unions and other groups have mounted a fierce campaign against the proposals. An outcry from police, firefighters and other groups has led Schwarzenegger to abandon another proposed ballot measure, which would have replaced traditional public-employee pensions with investment plans similar to 401(k) accounts.
Beyond the immediate political battles against Schwarzenegger, Westly, Angelides and Lockyer were looking ahead Saturday to the June 2006 gubernatorial primary.
Westly and Angelides cast themselves as tough fiscal watchdogs.
Westly, 48, played up his background as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who struck it rich during the Internet boom as an early executive at EBay.
“The state’s ready for a governor who’s as innovative as its people,” he said in an interview.
Defending his campaigning with Schwarzenegger last year for ballot measures that authorized $15 billion in debt and new spending restraints, he said, “You’re not going to beat Arnold by just bashing him.”
He said Angelides was wrong to fight the measures.
Westly and Lockyer faulted Angelides and others who are pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy, saying that was the wrong place to start solving the budget crisis. But both declined to rule out raising taxes as governor.