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Democratic fight about views, more

One month into the rival advertising campaigns of Phil Angelides and Steve Westly, it’s plain that their race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall is partly about personalities. But there’s more to it, for this contest may help decide what the California Democratic Party will stand for during the next several years.

Not since 1998 has the party had a contested primary for a top of the ticket slot, and that contest between ex-Gov. Gray Davis, financier Al Checchi and Congresswoman Jane Harman involved no ideological differences. All three are pragmatic centrists.

But this run is different. On one side is State Controller Westly, who has sided with Republican Schwarzenegger on items like his 2004 deficit reduction bonds and his solar power program, for which all utility consumers in the state will soon be footing the bill. The one-time investment banker sounds almost like a non-accented Schwarzenegger as he calls himself business-friendly.



On the other side is state Treasurer Angelides, who billed himself as the “anti-Arnold” when he barnstormed two years ago against the Schwarzenegger bond plan Westly backed and against the largest-ever college tuition and fee increases Schwarzenegger pushed through as part of his budget plan that same year, among other items.

Yes, despite their pledges of a clean campaign, these two will attack each other, with whoever trails in the polls when May rolls around sure to become the more aggressive. Westly will likely attack Angelides for his past as a Sacramento area developer, blasting the treasurer for contributing to urban sprawl, charging his one-time partner, Angelo Tsakopoulos, was assessed six-figure fines because of dirt and chemical runoff from one building project. There may also be the accusation that another Angelides-linked development attempted to make a protected wetland near Folsom into a school site.




Angelides would counter with commendations from major environmental organizations for several of his developments, saying they’ve been cited as exemplary “green” building projects.

Meanwhile, Angelides might go after Westly, whose estimated $225 million fortune derives in part from stock options acquired as an early executive of online auctioneer eBay, for some of his dealings in securities. The controller has been accused of profiting from schemes similar to a shady technique called “laddering,” in which insiders make large profits on initial public offerings of new stocks by buying at low prices before the IPO occurs, then bid up the price after trading opens, only to sell off their original stake at huge profits.

Westly would respond by saying his stock deals were all completely legal and arranged by his broker, not himself, as the broker had broad authorization to make moves on his own.

None of this will have many future implications. But some of the pair’s ideological differences could.

While both have held Democratic Party posts, former chairman Angelides has long been identified with the most liberal parts of the party, winning support from many unions after consistently backing them. He says he would “put the state back on the side of working families” and is willing “to ask the most fortunate Californians to be willing to contribute,” – code for a possible tax increase on the rich.

A win for him would likely produce a more confrontational Democratic Party likely to veer away from the moderate stances taken by Davis on many issues before his recall.

Where Davis consistently appointed business-friendly members to boards like the state Public Utilities and Energy commissions, Angelides’ choices would more likely be consumer activists.

By contrast, Westly has been a compromiser. “I’m not a partisan bomb-thrower,” he told one forum early in his campaign. “People don’t want someone who’s going to be a knee-jerk anti-Arnold. They want someone who’s going to stand up to him when he’s wrong and who supports him when he’s right.”

Westly backers contend his more moderate approach is the best way to beat Schwarzenegger in the fall. But just as Republican primaries tend to favor the more conservative candidate in any race, Democrats tend to reward the most liberal, which might provide a primary election edge to Angelides.

Yet, with independents voting in ever-larger numbers, general elections often go to the most centrist hopefuls. Which helps explain why Schwarzenegger is carefully positioning himself this year in the center, aiming to make life difficult for either Westly or Angelides.

ooo

Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Union. Contact him at tdelias@aol.com via e-mail.


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