No sooner had the final votes been tallied and state Treasurer Phil Angelides declared the winner of the Democratic primary race for governor than most political observers concluded he had little chance to defeat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the general election in November. After the unusually bitter and negative campain waged by both Angelides and his opponent, state Controller Steve Westly, it was thought Angelides would be too tainted by negative attack ads to stand a chance.
The bruising nature of the campaign, which included TV attack ads portraying Angelides as a tool of developers and a toxic-waste dumper, certainly chipped away at Angelides’ progressive image. But California voters are smart enough to put attack ads in their proper context when it comes time to vote. In November they’ll be weighing Angelides’ record and ideas, not campaign attacks, when they decide who should lead the state for the next four years.
That is where Angelides is likely to face his sternest challenge. He’ll have to convince voters that, at a time of unprecedented tax-revenue windfalls, substantial bipartisan agreement on the governor’s public-works bond measure and full funding for public schools, they should replace the man who presided over those successes in favor of a man who promises to raise their taxes — a lot.
Angelides was clear during the primary campaign about his plans to raise taxes, an issue that is considered the electric third rail of politics. He proposes an increase of at least $5 billion, mostly by boosting taxes for corporations and high earners — Westly alleged it would amount to more like $10 billion, and impartial political analysts have concluded that it’s hard to pin down the exact figure. The challenge for Angelides will be to convince voters that it is needed, at a time when Schwarzenegger can legitimately say that his refusal to raise taxes has encouraged business growth and resulted in an expanding state economy that is on a path to fully fund needed programs and pay down its large debt.
The political landscape shifted quickly this year — just a few months ago Schwarzenegger was politically wounded from his special election losses, and education activists were accusing him of reneging on a deal to fund schools more fully. Angelides’ promotion of a large tax increase suggests a campaign strategy hatched last year that has had the rug pulled out from under it by shifting circumstances this year.
By November the Westly attack ads largely will be forgotten and Angelides will have had a chance to define himself to all state voters, including the independents that form the crucial bloc for any winning candidate. He’ll have his work cut out for him to convince them his fiscal ideas represent the correct path for California.