Money, Muscle Come to the Fore

Times Staff Writer

With just six weeks left in their primary race for governor, the fight between Democrats Steve Westly and Phil Angelides is turning into a test of money versus institutional muscle.

For months, Angelides, the state treasurer, was perceived as the front-runner in the contest, collecting a string of high-profile endorsements, ignoring Westly and campaigning against Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as though the Democratic race had been decided.

But now Angelides acknowledges he has fallen behind Westly, the state controller, whose wide-open wallet has kept him on the television airwaves nonstop since January. Having earned tens of million of dollars in the dot-com boom, Westly has said he will spend whatever he considers necessary between now and the June 6 vote.

Calling himself the underdog, Angelides has begun to aggressively attack Westly at campaign stops and through a blitz of e-mails from his camp -- an assault likely to carry over to the airwaves before the contest is over. Westly, as the new front-runner, has urged Angelides to forswear negative advertising but vowed to “respond and respond decisively” if his opponent fires first.

Neither candidate is well known, making the contest extremely fluid. On the Republican side, Schwarzenegger is running without significant opposition in the GOP primary. Opinion polls show that a third or more of Democratic voters are undecided, and those leaning toward Angelides or Westly could easily change their minds and switch.


“Whatever happens from this day forward will be a ... lot more consequential than what’s gone on before,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist who is neutral in the primary.

Still, the two candidates staked their strategies early in the race and, with general accord on most issues, the outcome could greatly depend on which of them pursued the wiser course.

Angelides, a former state party chairman who spent years helping elect others to office, has worked hard to emerge as the favorite of Democratic insiders and the party’s major interest groups and allies. After ceasing his TV advertising earlier this month to save money, the candidate returns to the airwaves today with a spot that features his daughters touting Angelides’ support from the Sierra Club, teachers and firefighters.

Even though Angelides is a millionaire and may benefit from outside groups airing advertisements on his behalf, strategists for the campaign acknowledge he will probably be outspent by Westly.

They expect to make up the difference, in part, through high-profile endorsements and the kind of union backing that powered Gray Davis to the Democratic nomination in 1998, when he faced two wealthy opponents.

Support for Angelides from Democrats like U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sends a strong signal to party loyalists trying “to sort these guys out,” said Paul Maslin, the campaign’s pollster. And it underscores Angelides’ assertion that he is the true Democrat in the race: “It makes the other guy into a Stevie-come-lately,” Maslin said.

Boxer and hometown Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of House Democrats in Washington, appeared alongside Angelides last week at a luncheon fundraiser here in San Francisco. The two are co-chairing Angelides’ campaign, along with Feinstein and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles.

This weekend, Angelides will be bidding for the endorsement of the state Democratic Party when loyalists gather in Sacramento for their annual convention. The Angelides campaign long considered the endorsement a significant steppingstone for his candidacy. Lately, however, advisors have said Angelides would be happy simply to outpoll Westly among the more than 1,500 delegates, 60% of whom must agree before an endorsement is made.

More important to Angelides may be the backing of organized labor. Angelides has won the support of the California Teachers Assn. and the California Labor Federation, whose members were instrumental in routing Schwarzenegger in last year’s special election. Union leaders remain bitterly opposed to Schwarzenegger.

Still, it is not clear how hard they will work to rally their troops in the Democratic primary. In 1998, labor unions were fighting Proposition 226, a measure to greatly curtail their political clout, and Davis benefited from a heavy turnout of concerned union members.

There is nothing on the June ballot to spur labor’s interest this time. Moreover, some union leaders say they could get along just fine with either Angelides or Westly in charge in Sacramento -- a sentiment gaining increased currency now that Westly has pulled ahead, according to the most recent Field Poll.

“There’s not the fire that I’ve seen in other years. There’s not the ... work I’ve seen in other years, where it was a real priority,” said John A. Perez, director of political affairs for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, which represents 24,000 members in Orange and L.A. counties. “Most people have come to realize either of those two guys is a huge improvement over what we’ve got now. Many believe we’re better off keeping our powder dry to November.”

Westly, meantime, is following in the steps of several affluent candidates for state office who have met decidedly mixed results over the years. Some -- most recently Republicans Michael Huffington and Bill Simon Jr. -- won their party’s nominations, for U.S. Senate and governor respectively, before losing in the general election. By contrast, Al Checchi spent $40 million seeking the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nomination and pulled ahead in the polls after an early burst of TV advertising -- as Westly has done -- before losing badly to Davis.

Garry South, who worked for Davis and now advises Westly, said there is a major difference, however, between Checchi and his current client: Westly already holds statewide office.

“People do not resent a wealthy candidate spending lots of their own money,” South said. Rather, voters are put off when a candidate “comes popping out of a duck blind” -- as if from nowhere -- “and says they want to lead the nation’s largest state.”

Before making his fortune as an EBay executive, Westly spent years as a Democratic activist, running for California party chairman nearly 20 years ago. His more recent government experience was the subtext for Westly’s appearance last week before the Sacramento Press Club, where he discussed the state budget and tax collection efforts to a wonkish fare-thee-well. “Let’s move to bad debt, one of my favorite topics,” he exclaimed at one point.

Until now, the Democratic governor’s race has been fairly tame. Angelides, for the most part, has been content to work the back rooms in pursuit of contributions and endorsements, while Westly busied himself ironing the kinks out of his candidacy in far-off campaign stops.

That will probably change as the two men start speaking to bigger crowds and intensify their fight on the television airwaves. Angelides no longer acts as though his Democratic rival doesn’t exist.

Said Maslin, Angelides’ advisor: “This is now going to turn on real ideas, real differences on where you go from here and a real debate about the state’s future.”