“I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
– Will Rogers, 1935.
A look at the ballot for next month’s California primary shows that little has changed since the heyday of Rogers, the cowboy comic whose one-liners were just as nifty as his rope tricks.
Republicans are definitely organized. They’ve got contests for just two out of eight races for major statewide office this spring, while Democrats have tight and interesting campaigns going for all but three of the eight posts.
The only Democrats facing no serious competition are U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, going for a third full term, and two termed out veterans hoping to switch chairs. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante wants to move into the insurance commissioner’s office and Attorney General Bill Lockyer is after the treasurer’s slot.
Most of the attention these days is rightly focused on the contest between current state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly for the right to challenge Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall. That one features occasional mudslinging and a disagreement over what makes a good Democrat.
But there are plenty of interesting faces and races flying under the media radar screen.
In the run for lieutenant governor, termed out state Sens. Liz Figueroa and Jackie Speier, both from San Francisco Bay area districts, are contesting current Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi in a race with few differences of opinion. The only quibble among the three appears to be over who is the most liberal, who might be the most articulate spokesperson against Schwarzenegger, if he’s reelected.
Whoever wins, and Garamendi’s myriad labor union endorsements seem to make him the favorite, will face off against termed out Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Ventura County, long the Legislature’s most effective conservative, in a race where neither side will likely do much pandering for votes by attempting to become a temporary centrist.
The race to succeed Lockyer as attorney general is completely different. Here, ex-Gov. and current Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown faces Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo in a contest that may hinge on how much north-south animosity remains among Democratic voters in the party’s two strongholds – the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles County.
As mayor, Brown lived down much of his old flaky “Gov. Moonbeam” image. But does enough remain to throw the November race to conservative Republican state Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, who has no serious primary election opposition?
Meanwhile, if termed out state Sen. Debra Bowen of Marina del Rey wins the Democratic nomination, the main issue in the run for secretary of state will be voting machines and the decision by appointed Republican incumbent Bruce McPherson to certify several types for use in California elections. Bowen has been a leading critic of certifying the machines, many proven susceptible to computer hackers. Her primary opponent, fellow termed out state Sen. Debra Ortiz of Sacramento, has said little on the issue.
The most interesting Republican race – for the job of state controller, California’s chief check-signer – pits Central Coast State Sen. Abel Maldonado against former Assemblyman Tony Strickland of Ventura County, whose wife now holds his old legislative seat. Many Republicans are furious with Maldonado for backing Schwarzenegger’s proposed increase in the minimum wage.
This helps Stickland, a former McClintock aide who raised eyebrows when local newspapers revealed that he and his wife each have paid campaign funds to consulting firms owned by the other. The unsettled question: In a community property state, does this amount to illegal pocketing of campaign funds?
The GOP winner will face either termed out Orange County state Sen. Joe Dunn, perhaps the leading consumer advocate in the Senate, or Board of Equalization member John Chiang. Dunn would likely be the favorite, but a Maldonado nomination could cut into the Latino votes that ordinarily go to Democrats.
Termed out Assemblyman Keith Richman, like Maldonado a moderate Republican, faces the far more conservative Claude Parrish, now a Board of Equalization member in the other GOP contest, for treasurer. The moderate vs. rightist tone of this contest mirrors the Maldonado-Strickland race, with the winner to be a strong underdog against Democrat Lockyer, a proven vote-getter.
If having no primary contest makes a candidate stronger in the fall runoff, the advantage here is to the far more organized Republicans. But Democrats often feel surviving the test of a hot primary makes the candidates tougher to beat in the fall.
It’s rather like the debate over whether a baseball team that wins its pennant early is better off in the playoffs than one which has to fight until the regular season’s last day.
The only sure thing here is that because the Democrats, as always, are far less organized than the GOP, there is much hotter action on their primary ballot this spring.