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Democrat ambitions, infighting knife Angelides

Maybe it was because they were impatient and thus willing to settle for compromises that moved their agendas forward a bit, while not getting everything they wanted. Maybe it was because they concluded even before the June primary election that no Democrat would beat Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this fall.

Maybe they were moved by personal ambition and payoffs of various sorts.

Maybe it was for all these reasons that some of California’s most prominent Democratic politicians became Schwarzenegger’s de facto chief reelection allies during much of this fall’s election campaign.

But these are the facts:

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  • Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa waited until after Labor Day to endorse Schwarzenegger’s Democratic rival Phil Angelides. Perhaps Villaraigosa feared Schwarzenegger might ease off on his commitment to sign legislation giving the mayor partial control of the huge Los Angeles school district and its multi-billion-dollar budget.

Perhaps Villaraigosa, whose own desire to become governor is no secret, quietly prefers Schwarzenegger to win next month so his own path to that office will be clear in 2010. Perhaps it was because Schwarzenegger made his sister a judge.
In any case, Villaraigosa almost literally absented himself during the campaign’s last month, heading to Asia on a three-week trade mission that could just as easily have been scheduled one month later.

  • All through the summer and early fall, Villaraigosa protege Fabian Nunez, speaker of the state Assembly, uttered not a single negative word about Schwarzenegger. This was unprecedented behavior for a Democratic legislative leader dealing with a Republican seeking reelection.

It was especially striking since Nunez also is the nominal co-chairman of Angelides’ campaign.
Rather than criticize Schwarzenegger, he told reporters he considers the governor a great frien” and that their relationship was at an all-time high. Frequently, he looked like a tame lap dog tagging along with Schwarzenegger.

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With friends like that, did Angelides need any enemies?

Like Villaraigosa, Nunez had a legislative agenda that required Schwarzenegger signatures to move forward. His pioneering anti-global warming bill would have gone nowhere this year without the governor.

The five infrastructure bond issues on next month’s ballot, each containing clauses that all but assure big money to labor union supporters of Nunez, also would have been impossible without Schwarzenegger’s signature.

  • And then there’s the fact that Nunez, heading into his last two years in the Assembly, wants to be mayor of Los Angeles as badly as his mentor, the current mayor, wants to be governor. An Angelides win would delay both their agendas for years during which their political stars might fade, while a Schwarzenegger win clears a path for both.

This helps explain why San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom became the first leading Democrat taking Nunez and Villaraigosa to task for their failures in supporting Angelides. For Newsom has his eye on the governor’s office as surely as does Villaraigosa.
The two may well square off along with current state Controller Steve Westly and others in the 2010 Democratic primary, and it thus behooved Newsom to let Democrats know some of their top officials were doing little for the party this year.

“What’s going on within my own party relates to the lack of party unity in terms of supporting our candidate,” Newsom observed to a reporter. “It wasn’t more than a year-and-a-half ago that the Democratic Party was on the defensive and we were raising literally hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat the ill-conceived Arnold Schwarzenegger agenda. I can’t believe we’ve developed amnesia in such a short period of time.”

In short, Newsom was making an early start on his own future campaign, telling rank-and-file Democrats and labor leaders that while he’s been faithful, his potential leading rival for the party’s next gubernatorial nod - Villaraigosa - has not.

All of which leaves Schwarzenegger sitting pretty. It would be tough enough for a geeky-looking, wonkish candidate like Angelides to beat the charismatic muscleman Schwarzenegger even with his party solidly behind him.

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But when party leaders who would ordinarily work hard for their candidate and party moneybags who would ordinarily reach deep into their pockets for any Democrat instead acted like faithful Arnold sycophants, the task for Angelides became almost impossible.

The election returns that now seem likely to kill off Angelides’ government career may thus feel to him like a knife in the back.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.