A Hybrid in a Field of Hummers

Arianna Huffington is the front-running independent candidate for governor in California’s upcoming recall election. Her campaign is the latest development in a fascinating 10-year journey from compassionate conservative — she once spoke at a Republican congressional retreat — to progressive populist.

An author and nationally syndicated columnist, Huffington was born in Greece, graduated from Cambridge University with an M.A. in economics, and moved to America in 1980. She has published nine books, the most recent of which is a scathing attack on the failures of corporate America, Pigs At The Trough: How Corporations Are Stealing Democracy. She was formerly married to conservative congressman Michael Huffington, and currently lives with her two daughters in Los Angeles.

Huffington took a break from her whirlwind campaign tour recently to speak with Utne Online’s Joel Stonington.

Here at the Utne office we’ve been passing around your new Hybrid vs. the Hummer ad. How has the response been?

We just launched it yesterday, and I hear the response has been great. What it does is what the Internet has done for us, which is to help us reach tens of thousands of people without spending millions of dollars. It is part of the populist nature of the campaign. I like to use satire in my columns and speeches; here again the Hybrid vs. the Hummer uses satire to make very important points about oil dependence and renewable energy that is done in a way that is humorous and therefore engages people.

Why do you think Cruz Bustamante has taken the lead in the polls?

I must repeat that I think these polls are very meaningless. It depends on what polls you look at; there are some that have Arnold ahead; there are some that have Cruz ahead. They only poll likely voters and nobody knows who is going to vote in this election. They have already had unprecedented new registrations.

You’ve taken a big part in that haven’t you?

Yes. This is really the heart and soul of my campaign. Appealing to the 13 million eligible voters who didn’t vote in the last election. I don’t believe we will ever be able to restore our democracy and take California back unless at least a sizable majority of those 13 million comes back into the process. I believe this is absolutely critical. That is why we are starting our college tour on Monday and why we have a huge registration drive, and that’s why you can register on our web site. We don’t go to any events without registration forms. And again, that is what distinguishes my campaign from the traditional insider Democratic and Republican campaign. They never really deal with unlikely voters because they don’t believe that it is cost effective.

You say you don’t want to be part of the standard left-right paradigm. What differentiates your view from a classically liberal or leftist stance?

What differentiates me from, say, Cruz Bustamante, is that I take no special interest money. So I would govern completely differently. In his budget plan, called “Tough Love for Californians” there is tough love for everyone in it except for his big backers — Indian gaming casinos and prison guard unions. The main difference is how I would determine public policy as a leader. The only way we will clean house is if there is no other priority, no other interest, than the people. As the only viable woman in the race, I have said that my priorities are those of a woman and a mother. What does a mother want? A good school for her children, affordable health care, affordable housing, a clean world to live in. Why I keep stressing that these are not right-left issues is because they’re not. When the mainstream press defines them as left, they are basically marginalizing them.

There has been a good deal of talk in the press about your changing political views during the last decade. What prompted your shifting views on the role of government?

Maybe there is a statute of limitations coming up on this question. When I was a Republican, Saddam Hussein was our ally, George W. Bush was running a mediocre baseball team, and Ken Lay was a respected businessman; that’s how long ago it was. A lot has changed. A lot of politicians have past vices. With some it’s alcohol, with others it’s group sex, and with me it’s Newt Gingrich. I grew up. I saw the error of my ways.

But actually, seriously, the transformation, as you pointed out correctly, has been in my views on the role of government. I have always been a social moderate. I have always been pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights. I saw first-hand how the private sector would never sufficiently step up to the plate to solve the major social problems we are facing, that you couldn’t really do it without the raw power of government appropriation. So that is really what shifted my view on the role of government.

Governor Davis blames the federal government for energy deregulation. How would you have done things differently?

It is about leadership. Leadership is about looking around the corner and seeing the danger before it becomes a crisis . . . seeing the iceberg before it hits the Titanic. For example, I am now speaking about the need for renewable energy. I believe this is already a crisis, but other leaders do not. They are willing to wait until the crisis really hits us in the face. That’s what happened with the energy market. Clearly, the government missed a lot of the early signs. That is the main thing I would do differently — I wouldn’t be as preoccupied with my fundraising, like he has been. Then, he really didn’t play hardball with the Bush administration. I would have absolutely played hardball. I would have refused to go along with the restrictions of the FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] and the fact that they held us liable for billions of dollars in contracts even though it has been proven that the energy companies — the friends of the Bush administration — had manipulated the market.

On a different note, the Terminator has often been dominating the media, how does your campaign respond to this?

This campaign is getting unprecedented media attention. I can’t remember when a gubernatorial race has gotten the attention that this one is getting. Normally a race would get eight seconds on the evening news and here we have an incredible opportunity to get our message out through TV and other free media and tomorrow in the debates, which will be televised live across the state and already has 120 credentialed reporters.

Who is taking part in the debate tomorrow?

Cruz Bustamante, Peter Ueberoth, Tom McClintock, Peter Camejo, and myself — all the first-tier candidates except Arnold.

Why do you think Arnold decided not to take part?

I can only speculate that he doesn’t feel he is ready to answer substantive questions. I still wouldn’t be surprised if he did decide in the end to participate because there has been so much criticism about the lack of respect it shows Californian voters not to be willing to take part in the first major debate.

If you don’t win this race for governor are you planning on pursuing a career in government?

I am gong to tell you the absolute truth. This is like running a marathon. It’s all I’m focusing on right now, and there will be plenty of time for decisions after October seventh.

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