The Republican wave that swept the country seemed to crash and recede right at the California border, but only barely. You’d think incumbent Governor Gray Davis’s victory over millionaire businessman Bill Simon Jr. and the first Democratic sweep of statewide offices in 120 years would fill Democratic hearts with joy. Instead, Davis’s surprisingly narrow single-digit win left a lot of Democrats here disappointed and just as many–if not more–jittery about party prospects in 2004.
Armed with a massive, $68 million war chest and faced with a bumbling challenger who even Republicans said ran the most inept campaign in the nation, Davis was expected to finish with a long, double-digit lead. But his 47-to-42-percent victory netted him five points less than he won when first elected four years ago. And Republican Simon–whom Davis greatly outspent–finished strong enough to surprise many of his supporters.
“We should’ve buried Simon and the Republicans,” says a Los Angeles labor official who put in several eighteen-hour days for the Democratic ticket in the final week. “Instead, it feels like only by the grace of God we dodged a train wreck of our own.”
Indeed, sifting the California election results, it’s easy to conclude that a very different politics from that of the Bush White House is struggling to be born on the Left Coast. But a lack of leadership from the Democratic governor’s office–to say the least–has failed to fully capitalize on that alternative potential.
Thanks to California’s massive demographic and economic shifts of the past decade, labor and especially Latino voting power has increasingly marginalized the gun lobby and along with it the Christian right. Even the state’s trademark middle-class tax rebels who conjured up the notorious Prop 13 more than two decades ago have been routed. A move by homeowner groups in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood suburbs to secede from the city was smashed by a broad coalition fueled by organized labor. School bonds were handily passed, even in once-taxophobic Orange County. And the increasingly liberal state electorate installed and retained a solidly Democratic legislature that passed a landmark global-warming bill, granted paid family leave and widened organizing rights for farmworkers.
But the governor refused to lead on most of these liberal issues and had to be cajoled by his own party base to sign them into law. One can only imagine how California liberals and progressives could have been mobilized over the past four years if a more Wellstonian spirit had emanated from Sacramento.