Electorally Speaking, Phil Angelides Is Hardly An 800-pound Gorilla

I’ve watched with interest — and no little amusement — as state Treasurer Phil Angelides has attempted to orchestrate a sense of momentum and inevitability in his quest for the Democratic nomination for governor.

For most of the last year, Angelides has run the classic insider’s campaign, announcing with great fanfare the endorsements of dozens of other Very Important Politicians.

But the dirty little secret is, there is nothing in Angelides’ electoral career that should lead anyone to believe he is an 800-pound gorilla, politically speaking — or that he is the best Democrat to run against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, despite the perception that he’s been around forever, Angelides essentially still is a relatively untested candidate. More importantly and more dangerously, he is an unvetted candidate.

Most Democrats probably remember that Angelides ran for treasurer the first time in 1994. But few likely recall that wasn’t the office he really wanted. After relinquishing the chairmanship of the California Democratic Party, Angelides announced in early 1993 that he was running for lieutenant governor. For five months, he caromed around the state in his quest for the state’s second-highest office. He garnered the endorsements of newly elected Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (sound familiar?), and held a fundraising event in San Francisco that probably still carries the record for a one-night take by a candidate for down-ballot office: more than $120,000.

This is where I came into the picture. In the summer of 1993, I was hired by then-Controller Gray Davis to manage his own campaign for lieutenant governor. One of my first challenges was to get Angelides out of the race. Davis feared that a full-out primary fight could fully deplete his campaign treasury, and that he would be unable to reload sufficiently if he drew a significant Republican general-election opponent.

We set about trying to pressure Angelides into withdrawing from the race. How? We began buying “piggy-back” questions on the race on just about every statewide poll we learned about. With the help of Speaker Willie Brown, who was backing Davis, and other supportive insiders, these blowout Davis numbers were widely circulated among major donors to Angelides, including his Greek-American business partners and financial angels in Sacramento. Within just a few weeks, Angelides got cold feet and announced he had changed his mind, skittering over to the race for treasurer, the office being vacated by Kathleen Brown — presumably because he thought there would be less competition.

But the Democratic primary race for treasurer that year also drew another prominent Democrat, former Senate President pro Tem David Roberti. But before he could get his campaign for treasurer up and running, Roberti became the target of the first recall attempt of a state elected official in 80 years, an effort bankrolled by the National Rifle Association in retaliation for Roberti’s sponsorship of the country’s first assault-weapons ban in 1989.

Roberti ultimately beat back the recall, but emerged from the race flat broke, and unable to raise sufficient money in the few weeks remaining to compete with — or make the case against — the millionaire Angelides. After a shameful campaign in which Angelides accused Roberti of supporting the killing of abortion doctors, Angelides scored a surprise upset victory.

But lingering distaste among Democrats over his scorched-earth tactics against Roberti contributed to a general-election defeat by Board of Equalization member Matt Fong, the Republican nominee. (Gray Davis, by contrast, had demolished Fong four years before in the race for controller.) In 1998, running for the second time for treasurer, Angelides drew as his only meaningful primary opponent one Albert Robles, then-city treasurer of the pint-sized industrial town of South Gate, in southeastern L.A. County. On the Vote Smart web site, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Robles listed as his “key endorsements” — I swear, I couldn’t make this up — “None, other than the good Lord.”

The general election that year saw Angelides facing off against Curt Pringle, a former speaker of the Assembly, who had never run for statewide office before. Pringle had come through a tough primary fight, and never really raised enough money to compete. Angelides sailed in the slipstream of Davis’s 20-point landslide victory to an easy win over Pringle.

The 2002 primary election saw Angelides running against nobody — literally. Not even a single warm body filed in the Democratic primary against the sitting treasurer. And he won the General Election against the unknown Greg Conlon.

Fast forward to the current race for governor. Angelides’ showings in recent public, non-partisan surveys are shockingly weak, given his high-profile positioning in California politics over the past 15 years — including two years as a very visible state party chair, presiding over major election victories in ’92, and having run for statewide office three times previously.

My advice to Democrats is, this primary election campaign has barely begun, so keep your powder dry and your ptions open. This will be the first time in his electoral career that Angelides will face an opponent who is 1) well-funded (probably better-funded), 2) who has already run for and won statewide office, and 3) has a campaign team with a proven record of success in gubernatorial campaigns.

It will be a whole different-and unfamiliar-ballgame for Phil Angelides.