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Tackling Arnold

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A23

Phil Angelides looks like a nerd. Gangly and elongated, earnest in manner, liberal in politics, he is in almost every way the polar opposite of the current governor of California -- whom, Angelides announced yesterday, he is seeking to replace in next year's gubernatorial election.

Angelides's declaration came as no surprise. California's treasurer since 1999, Angelides has been the only leading Democrat to oppose Arnold Schwarzenegger at every turn. When Schwarzenegger went to the voters last year with a bond measure to finance some of the state's deficit -- not a bond for schools or parks, mind you, but for current deficit spending -- Angelides stood virtually alone in opposing it. The measure passed, but as a result of Schwarzenegger's unyielding opposition to restoring the top tax rate on California's wealthy, the state's budget is still billions of dollars in the red.

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This year Arnold's budget does contain a few revenue enhancers. He's targeted for elimination a property tax and rent relief program for the elderly, blind and disabled. "What he doesn't do is ask one sacrifice from any of us who have done well financially," Angelides said in an interview yesterday after declaring his candidacy in San Francisco.

Angelides has done well financially, though hardly on the scale of a global mega-franchise such as Arnold. A home builder and developer, he erected "new urbanist" communities that located basic amenities within walking distance of homes -- energy-efficient homes, of course. In and out of office, Angelides has been the socially responsible capitalist par excellence.

As treasurer, Angelides has been a trustee of the state's massive public employee retirement systems -- the largest pools of investment capital in the land. At his insistence, those funds have invested roughly $3 billion in California's inner cities and aging working-class suburbs, and $1.5 billion more in renewable energy initiatives. The pension plans have also become the most powerful champions of shareholder rights in American capitalism, the sworn enemy of excessive executive paychecks and golden parachutes.

Indeed, for the past half-decade, the two Democrats who have consistently taken on the abuses of Enron-age capitalism haven't been senators, governors or congressmen but rather Angelides and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Both now are seeking to govern their respective states, but in going up against Arnold, Angelides clearly has the steeper climb.

The treasurer proposes to oust Arnold by making the election a referendum on "two very different visions of what makes a society stronger." Chastising Schwarzenegger for proposing to curtail admissions of qualified students to the University of California and for refusing to make any new investments in the state's increasingly gridlocked transportation system, Angelides links the governor to President Bush. "Both have mastered the language of compassion," he says, "but all the sacrifices they're demanding come from those who have the least."

Angelides is particularly critical of the governor's attempt to abolish the state's public employee and teacher pension funds and substitute 401(k)s for them. He sees the move not just as an assault on teachers' retirement security but as an attack on the funds' shareholder activism that has upset so many chief executives. Schwarzenegger has been raising some big-ticket money for his initiative, auctioning off a seat at his dinner table during a recent New York visit for a cool hundred grand.

To contest Schwarzenegger, Angelides must first win the Democratic primary in June next year. His one certain rival will be Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a longtime liberal warhorse who, unlike Angelides, has sided with Schwarzenegger on some issues. Among California progressives, though, Angelides is the favorite son -- as Sen. Barbara Boxer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi made clear yesterday when they endorsed him.

Emboldened by the Democrats' provisional success in warding off Bush's Social Security privatization proposal, Angelides intends to tap into California voters' historical commitment -- only sporadically in evidence in recent decades -- to public investment in schools, roads and the like, and their willingness to finance those investments with progressive taxation. How implausible is that? Schwarzenegger's popularity has descended from the stratosphere to a more earthly 55 percent in recent polls. His compact with the right -- they'll indulge his libertarian cultural politics so long as he opposes any tax increase -- has put him in a box where he must either cut popular programs or paper over deficits or both. That's no way, says Angelides, to govern a state that once epitomized the American dreams of both opportunity and equality. If he can persuade state voters to agree with him, next year's election could tell a story in which Arnold never intended to appear: Revenge of the Nerds.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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