Settled in the back of a black sedan, state Treasurer Phil Angelides jumped at the chance to take a call from Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters union.
Paulson told Angelides that the firefighters, a nemesis of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would back him for governor. Angelides said he was so thrilled -- "honored beyond belief" -- that he had goose bumps. "I'd love to be able to announce this publicly with you," he said. "Can we do something tomorrow morning?" He grinned and thanked Paulson. "Bye-bye, buddy."
With that, Angelides closed the flip-phone and raced across the fog-shrouded hills near Oakland to his next campaign stop.
Just over four months before the Democratic primary for governor, Angelides has commandeered the party establishment. He has lined up support from more than three dozen unions, 200-plus elected officials and hundreds of other party insiders. In most years, that would seal his victory.
But with state Controller Steve Westly ready to spend more than $20 million of his personal fortune battling Angelides for the nomination to challenge Schwarzenegger, the value of that broad support base is less sure than it once was. Westly's money -- and the sheer volume of advertising it will buy -- threatens to offset Angelides' institutional edge, said Eric Smith, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor.
"That money is a wild card in here," he said.
Further heightening the uncertainty for Angelides is the nature of Westly's approach: Early jabs suggest a tough brawl in the making. The Democratic rivals barely differ on issues, so the race is likely to hinge on personality and biography. That poses a crucial question for Angelides: How well can he withstand that sort of race?
So far, his main selling point has been the high-risk gamble he took two years ago in standing up to Schwarzenegger at the peak of the Republican governor's popularity, when no other major Democrat -- including Westly -- was willing to defy him.
"I am proud that I earned the label of the anti-Arnold," Angelides told a roomful of rank-and-file Democrats one recent morning in Van Nuys. "It is a badge I wear with honor."
While he markets himself as a man who sticks to core beliefs regardless of political cost, the Westly campaign counters with an alternate version of Angelides: an arrogant and entrenched Sacramento politician with a shady past as a developer.
"He can, and often does, come off as an insufferable know-it-all," said Garry South, a senior Westly strategist who argues that Angelides will not wear well with voters after they get to know him.
"You can try to lemon-freshen someone's basic personality in a campaign, and you might be able to file off a few of the rough edges, but ultimately the truth will out," South said. "Voters get a gut sense of who you are and whether they like you or not."
In a top-of-the-ticket race, likability can be important, as Schwarzenegger's recall election showed. Those who know Angelides well say he's smart, works hard and has a sense of humor, despite his reputation as a wonk.
But he also tends to focus on minute tasks better left to those who work for him, they say. Never seen as lacking self-confidence, he often wedges his Harvard education into conversation, a habit known to Ivy Leaguers as dropping the "H-bomb."
"Do you know Cornel West?" Angelides asked on the ride to an Oakland school that he once visited with the renowned Princeton University scholar. "He and I both grew up in Sacramento. We didn't know each other as kids there, but we were the only two kids from Sacramento who went to Harvard, class of '74."
At public events, Angelides makes a point of showing his lighter side. In Van Nuys, he joked about the recent motorcycle wreck that left Schwarzenegger with a stitched lip. The crowd burst into guffaws when Angelides said he had ridden to Van Nuys on his "hog" with his daughter, Megan, in the sidecar.
"No accidents," he said. "And I want to be clear: I'm fully trained and licensed as a driver."
The thin and bookish treasurer -- many say he looks like a nerd, even if he has shed the image a bit with frameless glasses and a swept-back hairstyle -- plays up contrasts with Schwarzenegger.
"If you have any doubts about how different we are, I suggest you just look at my body," Angelides, 52, an avid tennis player, tells crowds in his stump speech. "Mine is natural. It is God-given. There are no steroids."
Of more consequence, he takes on Schwarzenegger for student fee increases at public colleges and universities, and for billions of dollars in new state debt that postpones California's reckoning with its chronic budget shortfalls.
Angelides calls himself a champion of "progressive values." As state treasurer, he has pushed public pension funds to dump tobacco stocks, invest in urban renewal projects and pressure corporations into cleaning up the environment. A close ally of labor, he also supports abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
If he makes it into a general-election race, his call for increasing taxes could pose problems; Schwarzenegger has been steadfast in opposing higher taxes.
"Instead of asking students to give up their dreams, we ought to be asking some of the wealthiest people to pay a little more," Angelides told students in the Oakland school library.
Though siding with liberals, Angelides in other ways has stuck to the political center. A death penalty supporter, he opposes a moratorium on capital punishment. He also has declined to criticize Schwarzenegger for denying clemency to death row inmates. And despite his call for massive new infrastructure spending, he advocates fiscal restraint.
"Instead of borrowing billions and billions and billions of dollars -- and loading the debt on our kids -- I promise you I'm going to do what Bill Clinton did when he got to Washington: I'm going to balance the budget," he told the Democrats in Van Nuys.
Angelides grew up in the same Sacramento neighborhood -- Land Park -- where he and his wife, Julie, have raised their three daughters, who are 18, 21 and 27 years old.
Now a multimillionaire, Angelides grew up in a middle-class household. His father, the son of Greek immigrants, designed heating and cooling systems for the state. His mother, a homemaker of Greek origin, emigrated from Egypt.
From ninth to 12th grade, Angelides attended boarding school in Ojai, then went to Harvard, where he majored in government. On a break from college, he ran for City Council in Sacramento. All of 19, he lost. After he earned his bachelor's degree, he returned to Sacramento and got a job with a housing agency in Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, then served as an aide in the Legislature.
Angelides also became an aggressive campaign fundraiser. What started small -- he and his wife once threw a Velveeta cheese party that raised $10,000 for a Sacramento council candidate -- grew into a major sideline. He collected more than $2 million for Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign in 1988.
His success at raising money helped propel him into the job of state Democratic chairman in 1991. As party leader, he presided over a major resurgence, culminating in the 1992 elections of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
At the same time, his real estate business flourished, thanks largely to his patron and investment partner, Angelo Tsakapoulos, a major developer of suburban tract housing around Sacramento.
Their projects also provided fodder for Angelides' eventual political rivals.
Matt Fong, the Republican who defeated him in the 1994 treasurer's race, alleged in one ad that Angelides was sued for fraud and failure to pay his bills. The spot also linked Angelides to a $100,000 fine for dumping sludge into Lake Tahoe.
An Angelides spokesman dismissed the ad as a collection of "false and misleading accusations," but Westly's campaign has signaled that it plans to mount similar attacks.
In his two winning campaigns for treasurer, Angelides stressed his business background. This time, he has stuck largely to broader issues, especially education. His demeanor also has changed.
Before the Schwarzenegger era, Angelides typically came off as "measured and subdued," but lately he has turned into a fiery "pound the table" type, said Bruce Cain, a political scientist who directs the University of California Washington Center.
"He seems to have had a bit of a makeover," Cain said. Like 2004 presidential contender Howard Dean, he added, Angelides "seems to have captured a lot of the anger that Democratic loyalists have about the Republican Party."
Angelides is counting on that to carry him to the party nomination and beyond.
"I'm not going to run as a pale version of what the Republicans have brought to this state and this country," he told the crowd in Van Nuys. "I'm going to run as a Democrat standing proudly for our values."