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Beast of the Month - December 2002
Gray Davis, California Governor
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
No hanging chads about it this time. No need for a recount or a revote. Unlike Y2K, the GOP didn't need to steal the election in 2002. The Democratic Party was more than happy enough to give it to them.
There's a lot of things that could explain the GOP victories in November: 9-11, Osama bin Laden, fears of terrorism - did we mention September 11th yet? (Okay, maybe this is a little simplistic: after all, there's always the concern of Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. And did you know he gassed his own people?) But ultimately, it appears the victory of the Republicans had less to do with their virtues than the vice of emptiness within the Democratic Party. After all, it's hard to be a successful opposition party when you aren't opposing anything.
The early sign that something was in the air was in the symbolic (and suspicious) tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. St. Paul, who tirelessly espoused passionately populist progressive values in the state that also had populist rebel Jesse Ventura as governor, was often referred to as "The Conscience of the Senate." With his death in a plane crash, then, the US Senate can rightfully be classified as having no conscience.
One could rightfully say the same about the Democratic Party. Wellstone was one of the few Democrats who voted against giving Shrub an executive blank check in a proposed war on Iraq. (This was in defiance of right-wing forces that used repulsive anti-patriotism smears to attack anyone opposing the BushMob's kreepy agenda. How low did it go? In Georgia, Saxby Chambliss repeatedly questioned the patriotism of Democratic incumbent Max Cleland for his supposed lack of support for Dubya. While Chambliss dodged Vietnam with a "medical deferment", Cleland became a war hero who lost three limbs in a grenade explosion. Perversely, Chickenhawk Chambliss won the election.) To the horror of the right, Wellstone, far from losing popularity from his brave stance, was actually rewarded in the polls. (This, along with the immense fund-raising by the Republican Party to oust him - his opponent, Norm Coleman, was the second highest-rated money raiser among GOP nominees after the more obvious cash machine of Elizabeth Dole - and Wellstone's near-death in a post-election 2000 visit to Colombian, has led some to cynically suspect his plane crash wasn't quite an accident.) His death helped pave the way for a Coleman victory, and helped ensure a GOP takeover of the US Senate.
Add to this the consolidation of Republican power in the House of Representatives, and some would say the 2002 election turned into a repeat watershed of 1998, only in reverse: in that year, the Democrats bucked a 64-year trend of parties winning the presidential election losing seats at mid-term. (Of course, since the GOP lost the 2000 presidential election, the trend is arguably back in effect.)
There's a lot of guys who could be worthy symbols of the Democratic Party debacle of 2002, starting from the top. In the House of Representatives, Minority leader Dick Gephardt proved to be a brainless Scarecrow for the straw-headed strategy of trying to compete with Republicans in support for the War on Iraq. (Like Newt four years ago, he announced his resignation as Minority Leader after the pathetic election results.) In the Senate, former Majority Leader Tom Daschle proved to be a Cowardly Lion for his spineless sniveling, in a misplaced attempt at supposed "bipartisanship" which earned neither respect from friends nor praise from foes. And DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe proved to be a heartless Tin Man, as his attempt to match the GOP in fundraising by korporate klients left voters to correctly view the Democratic Party as a soulless entity.
But the ultimate symbol of the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party couldn't be found in all its defeats, but in the one area where it could claim victory. That area is the Golden State of California, where Gray Davis, The Konformist Beast of the Month, resides as governor.
California is, in an increasingly Republican Party country, an incredible anomaly. In 2000, Al Gore soundly beat Shrub in the state by 1.3 million voters, which provided the sole difference in Gore winning the popular vote nationally by over 500,000 (along with legitimately winning the electoral college vote.) Both of the Senators from California are Democrats: the often gutsy Barbara Boxer and (to California's disgrace) Dianne Feinstein. In the 2002 gubernational election, the Democrats pulled a clean sweep, winning all eight statewide offices (including the officially non-partisan office of Public Superintendent.) Among the winners was Governor Davis, who was reelected after winning in 1998 by 20 points. On the surface, then, it would look like Davis is a pretty popular guy.
That surface picture would prove deceptive. Though he is in an overwhelmingly Democratic Party state, he only won by five points and failed to even win a majority of votes, as the Greens, Libertarians and other third parties siphoned off deserved protest votes. Even more indicting is that the Republican he faced, Bill Simon, ran a notoriously incompetent campaign compounded by the fact he had a $78 million business fraud judgment against the investment firm he was chairman of. (In September, a judge who, coincidentally, was a Republican Party supporter overturned the jury verdict.) Simon, a multi-millionaire who was bred in a well-connected political family, claimed to be an outsider "successful businessman" who wanted to be the "CEO of California" at a time of Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossings. Meanwhile, his firm used an Enron-esque "creative" accounting scheme that the IRS views as fraud. As noted in the San Jose Mercury, Simon personally "employed an aggressive accounting technique using an offshore corporation to create paper losses that may have saved him millions of dollars in taxes," according to documents the newspaper obtained. How much he saved due to creativity is an open question: he has defiantly stonewalled the common practice of political office-seekers releasing all tax information. Combine that with the social conservatism Simon advocates (which is highly unpopular among California voters) and it would seem as though he'd be the dream candidate for a Democrat to face in an election.
In fact, Simon WAS Davis' dream candidate. At the very least, he was a dream candidate compared to former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan. Riordan, whatever his faults may be (most notably his asleep-at-the-wheel reign while the LAPD continued its Gates-era thuggery) is a well-financed (like Simon, he is a multi-millionaire) and affable enough fellow whose mix of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism earned him two terms in a relatively liberal enclave. Faced with the choice, Davis did the politically wise thing: he spent $10 million in the GOP primaries with television ads that bashed Riordan, ads that catered to the more right-wing mentality of Republican voters. Aided by the Davis campaign, Simon came from behind to whip poor Dickie, who never knew what hit him.
And what precisely did hit Riordan? To some, that is still a mystery. He has sometimes been described as "Bill Clinton without the charisma." (His lack of personal charm is so prevalent, it was his own mother that gave him the nickname "Gray".) The Klintonian label is due to his "New Democrat" style of politics that stands for, basically, nothing. He did make a big thing in his political ads about his "tough-on-crime" views and support of the death penalty. Had Riordan won the GOP primary, the argument could've been made that he was the more liberal candidate of the two.
Well, okay, saying Gray Davis is unprincipled doesn't tell the whole story. Davis, who once was Chief of Staff for Governor Jerry Brown in the Moonbeam era, clearly has one value he cherishes: the importance of raising money for his political campaigns. He is second only to Klinton among Democrats in terms of fundraising prowess, and is only behind Shrub in terms of politicians with money power right now. In May, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that during the five years since he began his first run for Governor, Davis had raised an average of $1,800 an hour, twenty-four hours a day. It is because of his immense fundraising that Simon (self-servingly, of course) referred to Gray as the "Pay-for-play" governor. The most notorious contribution: $25,000, by a lobbyist for software company Oracle (run by Larry Ellison, one of the wealthiest men on the planet.) The contribution was given days after California signed a $95 million no-bid contract with the company. (Davis has since returned the check, and the state is trying to void the dubious deal.) All told, Davis had raised the astonishing total of $78.7 million in political capital.
He needed every penny of it: Davis spent $65 million for his reelection and still barely squeaked out a victory. Indeed, he was a drain to the entire Democratic ticket, as voters uninspired by Gray stayed away from the polls (making the clean sweep all the more remarkable.) He was widely viewed as the weakest Democratic candidate on the ticket.
Voters' biggest beef with Davis, of course, was his handling of the Enron-fueled electricity crisis of early 2001. In his defense, Davis claimed he had nothing to do with the mess, as Republican Pete Wilson was the governor at the time, and the Shrubistas in Washington were to blame for their negligence of enforcing the law via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
This is, like much that Davis says, both true and false. Yes, Wilson was the governor at the time, but Davis was the Lieutenant Governor, and he did not speak out in opposition of the law (which was passed with a unanimous vote in the legislature of both Republicans and Democrats.) Furthermore, while the FERC (whose chairman, Pat Wood III, was personally handpicked by Enron's Ken Lay) was definitely negligent in the criminal fleecing of the public, Davis, facing blackouts and budget crisis which threatened public safety due to overtly illegal behavior by a price-fixing business combine, could have declared a state of emergency and done something daring, such as take over power plants. Instead, he "negotiated" with a well-connected criminal syndicate (that coincidentally had given him $239,000 in campaign contributions) that resulted in excessive rate increases and a public bailout of the state's utilities.
To be fair, his opponent in 1998, the slimy right-wing former state Attorney General Dan Lungren, would no doubt have handled the crisis even worse. And to be even fairer, there are few who allege that in his proliferate funding there is any evidence of criminal activity. Besides, Davis - unlike Simon, Riordan and the 1998 Democratic Party competitor (Al Checchi, who spent $40 million of his own money) that Gray came from behind to upset - is not an independently wealthy man and must resort to fundraising for his own survival. All of which makes the system more indicting: if there is little better that voters can hope for than Davis, and if his slimy money-raising schemes are considered acceptable, then there is something seriously wrong with the system.
The good news, of course, is that there are actually some decent choices from the Democratic Party to take over the governor's seat in 2006, most notably Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides (both of whom showed admirable courage in the face of the Enron-led energy crisis.) Both Lockyer and Angelides have good ideas, and have the charisma needed to be a first-class leader. For the Democratic Party's sake, they better be: with Arnold eyeing the Governor's Mansion in 2006 as a Republican, all bets are off. (And the question has to be asked: if Schwarzenegger runs, will he be like his Predator co-star Jesse Ventura as a true populist, or will he use his personal charm to shove down people's throat a scary right-wing agenda worthy of The Terminator? Stay tuned.)
In any case, we salute Gray Davis as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Gray!!!
Beastly Update: It has since been alleged that the massive use of electronic voting may have had just as much influence on the 2002 election as the overt theft of Florida in 2000. The fact that Republican partisans control electronic voting companies makes the charges disturbingly plausible. Whatever the case, the lack of principle of the Democratic Party (which would include their support of these very machines) still should be viewed as a major factor in the election results.
Update Part II: After the election, a public but unexposed secret became an even bigger problem for Davis and others: the exposing of the massive state budget deficit. Considering the state of the economy and the energy crisis (not to mention the good old 9-11 scapegoat for any problems) this shouldn't have been to surprising, but the refusal of Davis (and others) to reveal the crisis and its ramifications until after he was reelected underscores his lack of political bravery.
Post Office Box 24825
Los Angeles, California 90024-0825
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