Running man (the other one)
With less than a month left until Election Day,
SN&R talks to Phil Angelides about his vision for California
gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides’ ability to get within fighting distance of incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race to be California’s next governor is in serious question. Yes, the polls spell out doom and gloom for the state treasurer’s chances at the state’s top post. They also predict all-time low voter turnout on November 7—a phenomenon that gives the advantage to Republican candidates.
Angelides is trying hard to ignore the doomsday talk.
Dubbed the “anti-Arnold” by the media years ago because of his willingness to fight Schwarzenegger’s conservative tendencies (even in the early days when most California politicians seemed downright star-struck with the former action hero), Angelides became the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee last June after a heated and expensive race against eBay tycoon Steve Westly. But, well, things haven’t exactly been going Angelides’ way since then.
We thought it time that SN&R sat down with the candidate for a wide-ranging discussion. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
It can be tough slogging to interview candidates this close to an election, because they tend to deliver ready-made answers to any question you can think of (because they’ve usually already answered it 5,000 times before). So, with politicians, it can be hard to get a pulse. But this time, after the formal interview was over, Angelides spoke to me with a kind of calm resolve about his decision to run against this particular governor. “We always knew it was gonna be a tough fight,” he told me. “This man is powerful. … People said to me, ‘You’re a young man. You should wait until there’s a better shot.’ But I don’t think you get that option. You don’t get to choose your turn at the wheel.”
SN&R: It was only a year ago when Governor Schwarzenegger seemed wildly unpopular among California voters, with his special-election ballot measures going down in flames. Flash-forward to today—he’s popular again. What happened?
Phil Angelides: Well, here’s what I know. Despite the ups and the downs of the polls, the fundamentals confronting the state are the same. We are still a state that has big work ahead of us if we’re going to be in a place of opportunity in the 21st century. Despite the [governor’s] theatrics, despite his new stagecraft and script … the challenges before California stay the same.
It seems the governor entered politics as a centrist, turned into a conservative Republican during his first years in office and now has moved back to the center. How do you convince voters that he could turn back into that conservative guy again?
But he’s the same person he’s always been! He is someone who believes that if you lavish more on those who have the most, somehow the crumbs will fall down to the rest. He does not believe in doing those things that will make us a stronger California. He doesn’t believe in giving more chances to working people. He doesn’t believe in investing in education. He doesn’t believe in expanding health-care coverage. So, look, I’ve been someone who for 30 years has had a very strong set of values, and I’m in the democratic process because I believe very deeply that we will be a much stronger society if we use our wealth to create more wealth for future generations instead of just lavish more on those who have the most.
Since I won this nomination, the guy has spent $34 million from his campaign accounts—all fed by the corporate special interests—to do what the Republican attack machine does best: distort the views of Democrats and progressives.
But the polls have him ahead in this race by 15, maybe 20 percent. So, this is the reality; let’s talk about that for a second. You’ve had a strategy of linking Schwarzenegger to Bush, saying the California National Guard should come home from Iraq, etc. Is this strategy working?
Oh, look. Absolutely. What you see is the campaign of Schwarzenegger, run by the same people who elected George Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004. He’s on the TV night and day … and despite all that, his popularity is only in the mid-40s. What I’m going to do in the closing weeks of the election is make my case for the kind of California that I want to see. And it’s a very different California and a very different set of policies than George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger believe in. They are borrowing and borrowing and borrowing against our kids; they want to squeeze out investments in education and health care and those things that will make us all stronger. In the end, I believe I’m going to win this election.
How do you make California voters believe that? Because they see him appearing moderate … and in photo ops with the Dalai Lama! The polls make it look like you have a giant uphill climb—
Well, if I was a poll calibrator, I wouldn’t have run. For me, it’s very basic. For me, what’s basic is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing the wrong thing for California’s future. He’s running a campaign of deception. I call his ads his weapons of mass deception. But in the closing days, people will see a choice, and they will see that Governor Schwarzenegger has basically brought the Bush agenda to California. And they will see me standing up for working-class families, for middle-class families. I’ve always been on their side. Not just for the last 90 days.
I want to ask you about the Schwarzenegger tapes. Your campaign admits to having acquired and leaked the tapes [wherein the governor refers to the “hot temperament” of people with Cuban and Puerto Rican blood] to the L.A. Times. Was this an ethical lapse on the part of your staff?
I’ll just tell you what I know, which is that these are public documents paid for by taxpayers. They are recordings of government employees. The law says these are public documents. What’s really at issue here is the governor, his comments and the way he speaks about people.
There are rumors that there are more tapes, remaining tapes that your campaign might make public—
I’ll let you talk to my campaign staff about that.
OK, then. Let’s go to the wide lens. What’s your big vision for the future of California?
I believe we’ll have the strongest California if we give more people a chance to participate; if we give our children the best education in the world; if we help millions of hardworking families, who are barely getting by, climb the ladder of opportunity. What’s happened in the country over the last decade has happened because of the assault from the right wing. If you look at the policies of George Bush, the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger has supported, they have tried to decimate the very investments that would make us all stronger. They’ve given tax breaks to those who are wealthy instead of those living paycheck to paycheck. They’ve cut back on fundamental public investments that make all of us stronger. They have done the bidding of large corporations.
If you ask me what I want, I want to put the state of California back on the side of hardworking families, not increase the privilege for the wealthiest 1 percent. History is on my side. If you look at the last half of the 20th century, America and California became the strongest economies in the world because we had a broad middle class; because we invested in education; because we invested in community colleges, state colleges, universities; because we had a progressive tax structure and asked the least of the people who worked the hardest and asked multimillionaires to pay their fair share. I believe very strongly that our ticket to success in the 21st century is to do well what we did in the last part of the 20th century.
Your budget plan takes a Clinton approach?
Look at the difference between Bush policies and Clinton policies. Clinton balanced the budget. He asked big corporations and the wealthiest to pay their fair share. And we could invest in education and college, so we could give an income-tax credit to people who are making $20, $30, $40,000 a year. We made investments in technology, biosciences. And if you look at what’s happened under Bush and Schwarzenegger, they just think, “Give it to the top, and it’ll trickle down.” And it doesn’t. My fundamental vision is if we, in this wealthiest society on Earth, give our kids the best teachers, the smallest class sizes, the best technology … if we pay special attention to the kids in urban schools who are struggling the hardest … then we can develop the best workforce of the 21st century.
That sounds like it’s gonna cost a pile of money.
Here’s what costs a pile of money. What costs a pile of money is to allow HMOs in California to walk away with $10 billion a year in profit and overhead. What costs a pile of money is an economy where today middle-class families are struggling hard, but the daily profits of the oil companies and pharmaceuticals and HMOs have reached $556 million a day! What’s happened is there has been an enormous transfer of wealth from middle-class families and the investments that make us all stronger to big corporations and the super-wealthy. That’s what costs us a pile of money!
You mentioned health care, so let’s talk about that. You’ve said you support universal health care, but you didn’t end up backing S.B. 840, Sheila Kuehl’s bill for universal health care. Why?
Well, that’s just an academic exercise because it was very clear this governor was going to veto that bill in a nanosecond. The real issue is: What’s the next governor going to do to expand health care in California? It’s very clear that Governor Schwarzenegger has no plan or intent to do that. Upon taking office, he tried to cut 100,000 children off the state’s Healthy Families Program. He vetoed legislation that would have covered every child, and he worked hard to overturn S.B. 2 that would have required large employers to cover workers.
Here’s what I would do. I would sponsor legislation that would give health-care coverage to every child in the state on day one. That’s about $130 million in year one. … We get $2 in federal money for every $1 in state money, so we can now cover 800,000 kids who can now be well and go to school and learn and see a doctor when they’re sick. I will require every employer with 200 or more employees to cover their workers. That would expand health care to another 600,000 people in the state. Thirdly, I will crack down on HMOs—and do what a governor is supposed to, which is regulate HMOs. HMOs are now taking $10 billion a year in profit and overhead out of health-care premiums in the state. I’m not gonna allow HMOs to take more than one dime out of every dollar in profit. So, we can reduce premiums by about $1,200 dollars a year, per family. Premiums have gone up $500 a year since Schwarzenegger took office. And finally, I will do the real work of being governor and move us toward universal health care. I would like California to be the first state in the country that has universal coverage.
You have a track record as treasurer for being an environmentalist, for getting pension funds to invest hundreds of millions in solar and wind, for being aggressive in getting companies to meet environmental standards, etc. But these days, it’s Schwarzenegger who looks like the green candidate.
What I would say to the people of California is, look, if you want a governor who is good on the environment 24-seven, all four years of his term, you should elect me. Because Schwarzenegger’s record is very clear. That’s why the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, the Clean Water Action … every environmental group has endorsed me. Let’s take global warming for a minute. Here is a bill the governor tried to gut and weaken all year long. Finally the Legislature said, “Take it or leave it.” And faced with the prospect of his own re-election, he took it. Now the question is, what’s he going to do next year? I have no doubts that if Arnold Schwarzenegger is re-elected, he will work next year to do what he did this year, which is cut the bill, not enforce it, bow to oil-company pressure.
So, what made you get involved in politics originally?
I became politically active when I was 19 years old, when Richard Nixon was president of the United States. I came to believe that a person could make a difference. One person alone cannot change the world. But one person with beliefs, with passion, who is willing to organize and work hard—that person can make a difference.
You got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, right?
At 19 years old, I was an undergraduate at Harvard, starting my sophomore year. It was the fall of 1971. Like a lot of other kids my age, I was deeply concerned about the war, concerned about the fight over civil rights, concerned about what was happening to our country. But I didn’t know really how to get involved. One day on the bulletin board in the freshman union, a sign said Al Lowenstein—who led the Dump Johnson movement and was now leading the Dump Nixon movement—was having a meeting. “If you’re interested in getting involved in politics and changing your country, show up at this meeting at 7p.m.” You can tell I still remember it by heart—it was on a little bit of red paper.
So, I went with my girlfriend. There were about 10 of us. I didn’t know who Lowenstein was at that time, but he was inspirational and pragmatic. He urged us to get involved with Pete McCloskey, who was running as a renegade Republican against Nixon and the war. So, I came away that night inspired. I’d been told how you get involved! Politics is talking to 10 people, and they talk to 10 more people. And then you’re talking to 100 people. Pretty soon you’re talking to 1,000 people, and that’s how you make a difference. So, I was off. I slept on floors and walked precincts all day and all night through 1972 [for McCloskey and then McGovern]. … I was so inspired. I eventually figured I could run for office and make a difference. I’ve never lost my ideals.
A lot of people feel that we’re living through a very dark time in the country’s history right now. We have a wrongful war and pervasive fear and civil liberties in jeopardy and global warming and a president who is basically out there stumping for our right to torture people—
Yes, well, Bush has turned the American ideal on its head. When people ask me why it’s so relevant that Schwarzenegger campaigned in Ohio for Bush in 2004, I say … “It was the election of our generation! It was a chance to stop the abuse of the American ideal and a chance to try to bring an end to the war in Iraq and a chance to bring a sense of some social justice and economic opportunity back to this country …”
And there he was helping Bush get re-elected?
Yes, and there he was. In the moment that defines us, he was campaigning for George W. Bush. You can’t claim to be in the progressive huddle when you’re on the right-wing team.
So what can a governor do about all this?
Well, every leader has an obligation to speak up and have their voice carry. And to do everything they can. The governor of California could lend a voice to the effort to bringing the war in Iraq to an end. A governor could show that the progressive ideal can work and work well …
You mean by being the first state to adopt universal health care and the like?
Absolutely. We’re in a place where we’re big enough, that California can make a difference. … We can become the incubator for ideas that can sweep across the country. That’s the great opportunity for a governor of California. And you’re never going to get that with Arnold Schwarzenegger. What you’re going to get is the minimum that he feels he needs to do to protect himself. That’s not the makings of a state where we’re first in education and the number of young people going to college and where all those young kids who come out of immigrant families get the education they need. That’s not the makings of a state where we’re first in developing clean fuels and environmental technology and where we become a genuine leader on global warming. … When California does powerful things, they ripple across the landscape.
This interview won’t publish until after your debate with Governor Schwarzenegger Saturday night. Any predictions about what will happen there?
I’m looking forward, for the first time, to actually talking to the people of California … and not through the lens of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attack machine. I’m looking forward to talking about where I want to take this state. I think he’ll be very skilled. I’m not underestimating that. He’s spent a lifetime onstage. So, I’m not looking for a knockout blow. I’m just looking for a chance to tell people who I am and what I stand for.
When you wake up on November 8, the day after the election, what’s your dream-world fantasy about what will have just happened to the political landscape in the state and nation?
It’s very clear in my dream world—which I dearly hope will be my reality world—that we’ll have a Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, that we’ll have a Senate Majority Leader [Harry] Reid. We’ll know that at least for the next two years we’ll have a chance to block Bush’s failed foreign and domestic policies.
And we’ll wake up in California looking forward to what we can be. We are still a place the world looks to for hope and inspiration. We are still the frontier of the American dream. I hear from progressives who wonder if we’re doing all the right things in our campaign, and I say we need to remember how important this fight is. Look, the Bush-Cheney team, they know how important it is to re-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger. The big corporations know what’s at stake. That’s why they’ve poured millions of dollars into re-electing the governor. They know a good deal when they see it. So, it’s a tough fight. But I have faith in the closing weeks that I’m gonna have a chance to make my case. And present a clear choice.