Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Tale of Two Races

Left: State Controller Steve Westly: Can he save California Democrats? He'd Better.

Californians, and San Franciscans especially, have some momentous choices to make in what should be a minor off year primary. Two of the most interesting races exemplify some of the best and worst new trends in state politics - both involve independently wealthy candidates at least on one side, both have devolved into negative campaigning, both involve at least one side justifying itself on the facile of premises, and both reflect the divide - one not so much of ideology as much as posture.

Part One: Westly vs. Angelides

With Arnold Schwarzenegger facing no opposition within his own party, attention has turned to the Democratic Primary between State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Controller Steve Westly, two candidates who appear to have as much in common as they do issues that divide them.

Both are relatively wealthy and significantly self-financed, although Westly more so. Before being elected as State Controller in 2002 against Republican Tom McClintock (and outspending him by 5-to-1), Westly was known primarily as a plank holder in the now gargantuan money tree known as eBay. Before that he was one of the first directors of Netcom Communications, one of the first consumer Internet service providers. What may not be so well known is that his successful private sector career was jump-started by a stint in government: after serving as an aide to the late Congressman Leo Ryan, Westly went to work for the Carter Administration on energy policy and then for the state PUC.

The Westly resume is noteworthy here because he has worked on both sides of the regulatory system for two industries of major import to Californians: energy and telecom. One industry saps at California's economic growth (and, it could be argued, is responsible for the undoing of the last Democratic administration here and for economically hobbling most consumers here at the same time); the other represents its future growth. It is a highly prescient combination of experience for a post-Schwarzenegger governmental landscape characterized by Legislative Capture (you will hear this phrase again, and again) by regulated service industries.

Angelides, on the other hand, made his fortune along a similar track, but in a more obvious choice of industry for getting rich: real estate. After working for the state redevelopment agency for almost a decade, he also went private, working for the Sacramento area developer Angelos Tsakopoulos, and later founding his own development firm.

Left: Angelides bought a lot of signs - and bagged the state party endorsement.

Both AKT Development Corporation (Tsakopoulos' firm) and River West (Angelides' firm) have made a significant mark on the economic landscape of Sacramento and the surrounding river delta area. The region exploded during the 1990's, turning what was once considered part of rural California into a major suburban zone - which hit the wall in the wake of the 2000 Crash. Laguna West, a River West development in Elk Grove, may well exemplify the future of suburban development in the area. Widely touted as an example of 'Smart Growth," some experts contend it's anything but.

Both have served as part of the state party leadership. Throughout the 80's as a young professional, Westly maintained a concurrent track in the state Democratic Party, serving in a number of fundraising positions and finally serving on the DNC from 1988 until 2004. Angelides also served a number of roles within the state party, eventually elected as party chair - a seat Westly tried for once and lost, to Jerry Brown - in 1991.

A casual onlooker might regard these two candidates as identical. But in many ways, they are different enough that whomever one wins in the June primary will dictate the future direction of the democratic party in California - regardless of whether or not the nominee eventually beats Arnold in November.

Westly’s primary message is one of reform and pragmatism - of turning the state’s democrats away from the insider politics and entitlement-oriented policies which have weakened the Democratic base in the state and made the Total Recall possible in the first place. Angelides has on the other hand touting himself as the "real" Democrat, lampooning Westly's wealth as if he were Al Checchi, succoring the civil service unions and keeping the hospitality suites at the conventions well stocked. Given the insular nature of party politics, it's probably not surprising that Angelides won the party endorsement, but can he win the primary? And if he does, can he beat Arnold?

Westly's campaign gained a significant amount of ground early in the campaign before most voters even knew who he or Phil Angelides was, leading him by double-digits. Most of the newspapers and a lion's share of legislators have endorsed him. The party elite and highest-profile electeds have gone to Angelides along with the state party endorsement, and polls now put either candidates' chances at dead even. Concurrent with the endorsement have been increasingly heated public appearances, which have devolved into negative campaign ads, which seem to be on every commercial break during the major newscasts now.

Schwarzenegger: Thinking of the future... (image courtesy japander.com)

California Democrats face a heady choice in the June primary, between a smart, independent and reform-minded candidate with the necessary experience to navigate the new deeper waters of state government and a party player who promises more of the same. In making that choice, it may be necessary for them to think beyond the increasingly shallow notions of party loyalty and think about the high seas facing our state in the future. And about sinking Arnold before he gives the Ship's Store away.

Next: The 12th Assembly District Race

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Lyndon LaRouche's California Kool-Aid

(Able Dart attended the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento this past weekend. Here is some of what he saw. More will be posted here in the coming days.)

(Left: Supporters of Lyndon LaRouche stage a remarkably out-of-context choral performance during last weekend's state Democratic Convention.)

This year’s state party convention was a showcase of both the hopeful and horrifying in state Democratic politics. The hopeful included the endorsement of Fiona Ma in the 12th Assembly District race, and of Jerry NcNerney in the 11th Congressional District race; the horrifying include the endorsement of party eunuch Phil Angelides for Governor, and the blocking of any endorsement for 36th Congressional District Representative Jane Harman. As in San Francisco, California’s Democratic leadership continues to bite the hands that feed it and instead gets drunk on Green Kool-Aid; although at least the statewide dialogue over the future of the party is more democratic than it is here in San Francisco.

However, today we are going to discuss a different flavor of Kool-Aid.

Sick people, and evidently sick political parties, attract parasites, and one which has been getting a progressively (pardon the pun) higher profile at California Democratic events is the strange movement run by Lyndon LaRouche. In the last few elections, LaRouche supporters have picketed state party conventions, both here and elsewhere, passing out incoherent, rambling LaRouche pamphlets excoriating increasingly obscure members of Bush’s cabinet (one year it was Dick Cheney; another year it was Donald Rumsfeld; this year it was Felix Rohatyn), and with oddly staged classical choral performances; this year, they actually got themselves a booth at the exhibit hall by posing as the “Franklin Roosevelt Legacy Democratic Club” (I wonder how August Longo feels about this), which was recently chartered by the LA County Committee (Oh Well, if we can recharter Milk...). A number of conventioneers went up to the booth and got pitched by LaRouche activists, who all seem to have the same anxious cadence in their voices and the same blunted affect on their faces, and left scratching their heads. Across the hall, Bob Mulholland was shaking his head, watching the whole thing.

“They’re a cult,” shrugged Mulholland. “They fly people in from Germany and Japan.”

While the LaRouche phenomenon may seem strange and almost comical based upon its current public representations, the reality of what it is may be much more disturbing and dangerous. Many people who saw the LaRouche presence at this past weekend’s convention may come away with the impression that he and his movement is a naive and grandiose effort by a rich eccentric. So while many political veterans are familiar with the long history of Lyndon LaRouche as an ideological chameleon and criminal, it may be time to review who he really is, and what his movement stands for – if anything.

Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.’s most public reputation is as a perennial candidate for President, having stood for the ballot in every election since 1976. He has generally made these runs under the portfolio of various self-styled organizations, which claim to have a progressive or pro-labor orientation. There are a number of front organizations in the LaRouche portfolio, including: the National Caucus of Labor Committees; the Executive Intelligence Review; the Schiller Institute; the LaRouche PAC; and the LaRouche Youth Movement, among others.

(Left: Hapless conventioneer besieged by LaRouchie)

His ideological pretensions, however, can best be described as “post-Marxist,” combined with notions of the state loosely borrowed from Classical philosophy. This last element, along with the dogmatic affect of himself and his followers, his thinly disguised anti-Semitism, and a penchant for violence he exhibited in the 1970’s, often get him mislabeled by critics as a fascist. The reality is that LaRouche, a former shoe salesman with no degree (he dropped out of Northeastern University twice in the 1940’s), has cobbled together his ideological schema over time from the naive sociopolitical fantasies of junior college students, mainly to attract funding and followers for himself rather than to build any sort of articulate political regime. This is further served by his penchant for conspiracy theories, an overwhelming number of which have LaRouche himself as the focus.

Much of LaRouche’s current courting of Democrats revolves around a policy agenda based upon allusions to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The LaRouche version, however, features ideas such as a return to the gold standard for US currency, macroeconomic infrastructure projects such as a “Eurasian Land Bridge” and development of nuclear fusion power, and the exploration and colonization of Mars - ideas lofty enough to leave the more realistic among us shaking our heads, but unfortunately also to lure in the gullible.

(Left: The LaRouche booth at the Convention had a bewildering array of propaganda, including LaRouche himself on video {see monitor in center of picture})

LaRouche has also propounded policy which is patently offensive to both Democrats and democrats on a number of political fronts: in his 1984 campaign for President, he famously bankrolled a television infomercial which claimed that the eventual Democratic nominee, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, was “an agent of influence of the Soviet Empire and Swiss Grain Interests.” In the following midterm elections, LaRouche followers in California fielded a number of candidates for local offices, along with a ballot initiative which sought to forcibly quarantine people with HIV, based upon pseudoscientific assumptions that the virus could be transmitted by mosquitoes. During this period “LaRouchians” were also used by the Reagan Administration to serve as mouthpieces for aspects of their foreign policy as well as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars.” Along with Ramsey Clark, LaRouche himself visited and endorsed the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the fascist/arabist Baath party.

Despite its dalliances with the course of national and foreign affairs, most informed observers regard the LaRouche organization more as a self-serving cult or fraud scheme rather than as a viable political movement. But this is where its danger lies, as well as any answers to questions like “so how do these kooks get all the money to keep doing what they do?”

In addition to his political front groups, LaRouche also maintains a number of presumably for-profit businesses, in varying degrees of sustainability, such as American System Publishing Company, PMR Printing, and the Benjamin Franklin Press, which are used to distribute and print LaRouche’s catalog of opaque literature and, according to some sources, could also be being used to launder money diverted from Federal campaign matching funds, as well as other monies defrauded from the gullible. Another source of funding is the Youth Movement, which recruits impressionable students, indoctrinates them in “cadre schools”, and buses them in vans all over the country to preach the LaRouche gospel and panhandle contributions. Many of the LaRouche activists present in Sacramento were spending the previous week in San Francisco doing just that.

LaRouche is also a convicted felon, having been jailed for wire fraud in 1988. He controls assets worth tens of million of dollars, much of it obtained by fundraisers preying upon the elderly and impressionable, which is then invested in real estate.

There is some emerging speculation about what these “fundraisers” go through themselves. There are indications that the LaRouche “cadre schools” are in fact brainwashing centers where mind control techniques based upon repetitive stress, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, forced memorization of mathematical puzzles, non-related cohesive activity such as choral singing, use of sexual innuendo as belittlement, and peer-isolating generation-gap rhetoric (“the Baby Boom Generation is lost”) are used to reprogram college kids into loyal LaRouche zombies. They travel together on long road trips where they are kept isolated from people other than their own cadre in order to reinforce their programming. This may explain the repetitive and circular rhetoric, and blunted affect, which is often encountered when talking to these people. And like in many other dangerous cults, a number of these people have died from misadventure.

The cultlike nature of the LaRouche "movement" often leads observers in the political community to regard them as a sort of joke, as yet another sideshow in the pageant of cranks that often accompanies grassroots politics. But there is serious risk in this view. Much of the LaRouche rhetoric, while evidently ridiculous to the discerning, has taken in thousands of people because it appeals to the public desire for reform in party politics. That in and of itself should make Democratic leadership take notice, as ordinary voters increasingly see our party as bankrupt of meaning and as too focused on insider politics and litmus tests (see reference to the eunuch in opening paragraph). Much of what LaRouche does to keep his organization afloat parallels efforts by some urban labor unions and poverty advocates that favor preserving existing entitlements over advocacy for new generations of at-risk workers and communities.

In some ways, it could be argued that LaRouche represents a sort of apotheosis of the corruption of American Progressivism; indeed, since he was tertiarily involved in the SDS movement during the 1960’s, it could be argued that he represents the last living artifact of the extreme abuses of that era, as manifested by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, the Charles Manson movement, and the People’s Temple. While it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see LaRouchians robbing banks at gunpoint or blowing up buildings, one can’t help but think of the wasted lives and damage to our own credibility that this particular sideshow represents.