Will LA progressives elect a Republican governor and cost Democrats the House?

It could happen.

Pick your metaphor: Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Circular firing squad. Eating our own. We Democrats are well-versed in the art of self-immolation. Are we about to torch ourselves yet again?

Anecdotal evidence suggests strong support among the LA Left for State Treasurer John Chiang, a former tax law specialist for the IRS, two-term member of the State Board of Equalization and two-term State Controller. Chiang's strong suit--possibly his only suit--is his mastery of tax policy, fiscal responsibility and astute management of public finances. Certainly no small thing, but to put it charitably, not what we ordinarily associate with a fire-breathing progressive agenda. Officials like Chiang call to mind William McChesney Martin, the longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve, who famously compared the Fed's job to a chaperone who takes away the punch bowl just as the party is warming up.

Chiang has policy positions, but virtually no policy chops. But what he mainly does have going for him, for local libs and progressives, is that he's not Antonio Villaraigosa, who would ordinarily have been their runaway favorite.

villaraigosa-2018.jpgOnce, Antonio had it all: a compelling personal story, replete with gritty upbringing, brushes with the law, out-of-wedlock children, high-school expulsion--and finally, a dramatic redemption inspired by a Jewish public school teacher, Herman Katz, who saw potential in a troubled Latino kid and helped turn him around. He had been a president of the Southern California ACLU board, a longtime union organizer, and Gloria Molina's transit board appointee before going on to serve three terms in the Assembly, including leadership positions as Democratic Majority Whip and Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker. After narrowly losing the mayor's race in 2001 to then-City Attorney James Hahn, he battled his way back in 2003 by beating incumbent Nick Pacheco for a seat on the LA city council. Breaking his pledge to serve a full council term, he challenged Hahn's mayoral re-election bid in 2005, and voters forgave him--rewarding him with two terms as mayor.

But that's when all the trouble really started. Two years into his first mayoral term, what began as a professional relationship with a longtime local news anchor exploded into a public affair that wrecked his 20-year marriage and derailed her journalism career. Then, urged on by wealthy political patrons including former Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist and civic leader Eli Broad, Villaraigosa adopted their pet cause of "education reform" (support for charter schools, curbs on teacher power)--a policy area far outside an LA mayor's wheelhouse--which put him on a collision course with his former allies and colleagues in the teachers' union. After signing a generous five-year wage package early on, the 2009 recession forced him to reverse field, and his efforts to balance the city budget with layoffs, furloughs, and scaling back pensions permanently alienated most of the city unions.

Villaraigosa's 2005-2013 mayoral tenure is not without success--notably in green jobs, energy, and environmental policies, and his undeniable leadership and achievements in restarting the Westside subway extension and funding other regional transit projects--but his own account of the Villaraigosa years, "Straight From the Heart," significantly exaggerates some achievements (reducing homelessness) and overstates his role in others (violent crime reduction, education gains).

Still, Villaraigosa's experience and accomplishments over the decades in organized labor, as a state legislative leader, and mayor of a major metropolis far outshine those of Gavin Newsom, who actually has relatively little to show for 14 years in local office--seven years as San Francisco supervisor representing a district barely a third the size of an LA council district, and seven years as mayor of a city barely 20% of the population of LA and less than 10% of our land area--and virtually nothing of consequence in the seven years he's spent as lieutenant governor, a superfluous statewide office lacking any real power that offers its occupants limited political visibility and little else. Only Gray Davis, with far more state-level experience, rose from it to become governor, and we know how that unfortunately turned out.

Northern California's monolithic parochialism largely explains Newsom's appeal up there, but I confess that I'm baffled how anyone in Southern California can support him. He's got all the superficial appeal--and much of the personal baggage--of Antonio Villaraigosa, with none of Villaraigosa's substantive career accomplishments.

So what's a progressive to do? Our top-two "jungle" primary has really shuffled the deck, and polling to date offers only limited guidance. Since November, Newsom has held steady in the lead, averaging around 27%; Villaraigosa, firmly in second place, has averaged around 16%; and Chiang has been stuck in fifth place and the single-digits, averaging barely 8%, behind both leading Republican candidates. There seems no reasonable scenario where Chiang can leap-frog over three other candidates in the next three weeks to finish second behind Newsom--particularly with a major last-minute independent-expenditure TV ad buy from the front group "Families and Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018," run by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates and largely bankrolled by Eli Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

If SoCal progressives vote their hearts, with Chiang, they will siphon off potential Villaraigosa support to a futile Chiang effort, and could unintentionally vault a Republican into the runoff. With Newsom's vulnerabilities, an aggressive, unified, and well-funded GOP effort could conceivably boost Republican turnout enough to turn back Democratic efforts to flip the battleground Republican congressional districts and retain a narrow Republican majority, and additionally, in a worst-case scenario, defeat Newsom's gubernatorial bid. But voting their minds would require progressives to set aside their deep-seated disappointment, resentment, and animosity long enough to ensure that Villaraigosa at least finishes in second place.

Progressives could live with a Newsom and Villaraigosa face-off in November. That would not only offer Dems a clear ideological choice between wishful idealism and hard-headed pragmatism, but it might also discourage enough GOP voters to cost the Republicans the down-ticket congressional seats and allow Democrats to reclaim the House.

Alternatively, if California Democrats fail to learn the lessons of history, they may be doomed to repeat once again that terrible experience of 2016--and ironically, for the bluest of blue states, put the torch to perhaps the last, best hope for decisively ending the era of Trump.


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