The California governor’s office, one of the biggest prizes in American politics, is up for grabs in 2010 and potential candidates are already jockeying for position.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Attorney General Jerry Brown, and former eBay executive Meg Whitman are just a few of the names being mentioned for the post. The intense interest is hardly surprising given the high-profile status that comes with the job.
Home to nearly one of every eight Americans, California, if it were independent, would be the sixth richest nation on earth. But the next leader of the Golden State will need an extra measure of mettle given the sorry state of its economy and the turmoil roiling California politics.
The political discontent that in 2003 prompted voters to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replace him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has deepened. A state legislature, long dominated by Democrats, has used government benefits to buy voter support from the minorities that now comprise a majority of Californians, making California the sixth most heavily taxed state.
With a Republican governor reluctant to raise taxes, and a Democratic legislature unwilling to rein in runaway spending, California's budget deficit is growing by $28,000 per minute, $40 million each day, and within months the state will face a $42 billion shortfall. In Schwarzenegger's words, it’s “a financial Armageddon.”
In his Jan. 15 annual State of the State address, Schwarzenegger blamed the state's budget impasse on a political “civil war” caused by both parties' “rigid ideology.”
Unemployment in California has topped 9 percent, nearly double that in most other Western states. And for the first time since 1849, California is suffering a reverse Gold Rush as those seeking lower taxes, less government regulation, and lower living costs flee the once state.
Term limits preclude Schwarzenegger from seeking reelection in 2010. Despite the state’s formidable problems, would-be contenders for Arnold seat are testing the troubled waters.
Among Democrats “Feinstein clears the field if she runs,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle's John Wildermuth. A former San Francisco Mayor, the grandmotherly moderate-talking, liberal-voting Feinstein will turn 77 in 2010.
Her nomination and victory are far from certain, however, according to Allan Hoffenblum, longtime political analyst and publisher of the highly regarded California Target Book.
“The political left hates Feinstein for being too moderate, a sellout,” he tells Newsmax. “In the same way many conservatives have come to distrust the compromising Governor Schwarzenegger.”
If Senator Feinstein chooses not to run, Hoffenblum tells Newsmax, the likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be the Attorney General Jerry Brown, 70, who was California's governor after Ronald Reagan. Jerry Brown’s father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was the governor that preceded Reagan.
Brown is a skilled, if eccentric, politician and failed presidential candidate. He has strong political name recognition in the state but carries the stigma of late night comics nicknaming him “Governor Moonbeam,” of being a part-time Catholic monastic and part-time New Age Buddhist, and of appointing radical leftists such as voter-ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who used the flimsiest of pretexts to reverse every death penalty case brought before her.
The recalled Governor Gray Davis took office as Brown's protégé and pocketed more tainted money from Enron than any other politician.
Other Democrats likely to run for governor are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 55, who, as a student at UCLA, headed its chapter of the controversial radical Mexican-American group MEChA, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, 41, who presided over dozens of later-nullified same-sex marriage ceremonies in defiance of state law and who had a notorious affair with the wife of his own chief of staff.
“Among Democrats I also wouldn't be surprised to see at least two other candidates,” Hoffenblum tells Newsmax. “Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, 63, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, 57, both proven professionals, will likely test the water and might throw their hats into the ring.”
But both in past races have been charisma-challenged, gaining little popular enthusiasm.
Among prospective Republican candidates the early frontrunner is the only other GOP candidate elected to statewide office, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, 52, a billionaire after selling two high-tech companies he created in Silicon Valley.
“Poizer has gained support from both establishment moderate Republicans and several conservative state lawmakers,” Hoffenblum tells Newsmax.
The popular buzz on the Republican side is for a political newcomer, billionaire Meg Whitman, 52, who, as a business executive, turned eBay into a major success and until the end of 2008 served on the boards of several major corporations, including Proctor & Gamble and Hollywood moviemaker DreamWorks SKG.
Many who were close to former California Governor Pete Wilson are gravitating to Whitman.
In 2008 Whitman was a financial chair of former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid, and thereafter was national co-chair of Ariz. Sen. John McCain's run as the GOP standard-bearer. She first registered as a Republican in 2008 after decades of not disclosing her party affiliation She could appeal to fiscal Republicans, independents seeking proven executive skill, and feminists as California's first female governor if Feinstein does not run.
“Both [Poizner and Whitman] are cocky and believe money can [get them elected],” a veteran GOP strategist ,who asked not to be named ,tells Newsmax. “Both have tried to involve old-style Republicans who are not known for innovation.”
The third most-talked-about potential Republican gubernatorial candidate is former state lawmaker and former Rep.Tom Campbell, 56. After voting for two of the four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, Campbell was targeted by Democrats and lost his congressional reelection race in a liberal district by 19 points.
All three of these GOP frontrunners are from Northern California's Silicon Valley area, and all are moderate Republicans – fiscal business-oriented conservatives but social liberals. Whitman in 2008 deviated from this pattern by supporting state ballot Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage; she was attacked by the state's gay media for her position. Poizner and Campbell opposed Proposition 8.
No prominent conservative from Southern California has yet entered the lists to run for California governor. With the moderate Northern California GOP vote divided among three candidates, such a conservative would have a strong chance of winning the Republican nomination.
In past years libertarian-conservative state lawmaker Tom McClintock of the Valley north of Los Angeles might have run, as he did unsuccessfully against the star appeal of Schwarzenegger. But McClintock instead won a seat in Congress representing the rural counties northeast of California's capital Sacramento. Whatever gubernatorial ambitions he has thusfar remain as quiet as the dormant volcano Mt. Shasta. Without such a candidate, conservative Californians in recent decades have shown little enthusiasm for moderate Republican candidates.
“We don't know how popular or unpopular President Barack Obama and the Democrats will be in 2010,” Hoffenblum tells Newsmax. “California has more Democrats than Republicans, but neither party is big enough to override the one in five Californians who register 'Decline to State,' the independents who now decide our elections. If the election pits a popular GOP moderate against a weak Democrat, our next governor will be a Republican.”
“We're going to have a very strong nominee in 2010,” former state Republican Chairman Duff Sundheim tells Newsmax, “and we'll be very competitive.”
Sundheim is founder and head of California Republicans Aligned for Tomorrow (CRAFT), which he describes as an organization to encourage “high-quality candidates” to run for Governor. Sundheim has spoken favorably of Campbell, Whitman, Poizner, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who also worked closely with McCain's 2008 campaign.
If Republicans can hold on to California's governorship as a power base, new voter-enacted redistricting rules that take effect in 2012 could start to break the political stranglehold of the gerrymandered Democratic majority in the state legislature and in the U.S. Congress. Which party wins the 2010 California gubernatorial race could thus influence the balance of power nationwide between Democrats and Republicans.
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