Why I Went to Work for Arianna

A renowned police abuse activist — who launched the website that drafted Arianna Huffington into the California governor’s race — speaks out about why he thinks her candidacy is vital to progressive politics in California.

The California GOP is up to no good, as usual. The question is: What should progressives do about it? Should we stand on the sidelines, shaking our heads during this unprecedented fiscal and political crisis? No way. Should we rally, once again, to defend the failed and compromised California Democrats — who have presided over unconscionable environmental devastation and a massive incarceration boom? Double no way.

We shouldn’t stand aside for the power-grabbing Republicans, who initiated the recall attempt. Nor should we defend the broken status quo under failed Democratic Governor Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Instead, the time has come for us to recover from our “post-Nader” shell-shock, roll up our sleeves, and turn this attempted “right-wing coup” into a successful, bottom-up rescue of the state.

Most of us know in our hearts that California’s Democratic Party no longer deserves passionate support from progressives. Not even in the face of this GOP-led attack. The truth is that leaders of the California Democrats helped create this mess. With Republicans running amok, I know that’s hard to hear. But it’s true.

For one thing, California ain’t Texas. And it ain’t Washington, D.C. Today, California is a de facto “one-party state” run by Democrats. The Democrats control both U.S. Senate seats, most U.S. House seats, nearly two-thirds of the state legislature, most mayoral positions, a majority on most city councils, and every single state-wide office (from the Governor’s office all the way down to the Insurance Commissioner). The Republicans may run the country, but they don’t run much of anything here in California.

On the contrary: California’s GOP is just a marginal collection of warring fringe groups, hopelessly divided between so-called “moderates” (who hate most people) and Neanderthals (who hate everybody). Even in the midst of the recall, three major GOP candidates are in the race, mainly fighting each other.

Because most California voters are pro-choice, the only Republicans who stand a chance in state-wide races are “moderates” like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who says he is pro-choice, pro gay rights, pro-gun control and who is willing to court people of color). True right-wingers like Bill Simon and Tom McClintock simply cannot win here. Period.

So while progressives rightfully fear the national GOP, we have little to fear from these state-level clowns. More importantly, we must not let our outrage at the national GOP blind us to the California Democrats’ unconscionable crimes.

Conservatives have attacked Davis (hypocritically) over the budget shortfall and the energy crisis. But progressives have our own reasons to shun him: He takes the prize as the king of corruption in California’s shockingly corrupt politics.

A shameless “pay-to-play” politician, Davis shakes down his contributors and openly sells his support (and veto) to the highest bidder. He has helped turn the state government into a giant vending machine for big-money interests. And until he got into hot water, he was best known for shooting down progressive legislation and fanatically funding prisons.

Davis is a disgrace. And he is not alone in his party. Sure, the GOP is the primary home of the state’s open racists, anti-gay bigots, and anti-abortion fanatics. But the California Democratic Party is overflowing with big polluters, profiteering incarcerators, and corporate power-abusers. In fact, those forces now dominate the Party. And Davis and Bustamante represent those forces, to the hilt.

Take, for example, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (the prison guard’s union). It makes hefty campaign contributions to politicians willing to pass draconian laws. The tough laws require longer sentences, which require more prisons, which then require more guards, who then pay more union dues, which then buy more tough laws. And on it goes.

As a result, California’s prison budget has exploded by more than 600 percent in the past 20 years. We are now the nation’s number-one spender on prisons. In fact, we spend more on prisons than colleges.

Like you, I support organized labor. But the CCPOA isn’t just defending its members. It actively twists laws to ensure that lots of human beings (mostly Black and Latino) are locked in cages. It profits by trafficking in human flesh, and gobbles up billions of dollars in the process.

So you would think that the “liberal” California Democrats and the CCPOA would be mortal enemies, right? Think again.

The CCPOA gave Democrat Davis $3.4 million in the past two election cycles. In exchange, Democrat Davis has given the guards three pay raises since 1998 — including a gigantic 7.5 percent pay hike this year. That’s right: in the same year in which a $38 billion deficit resulted in massive teacher layoffs and hospital closures, Democrat Davis gave the guards a $120 million pay raise. And by 2006, that pay hike will climb to 36 percent, costing an additional $700 million a year.

Further, Democrat Davis protected the incarceration industry from cuts, inflicting only a teeny 1.8 percent nick to the prison budget while slashing everything else.

Think the GOP would be even worse? Not in California. The GOP this summer actually proposed deeper cuts in the prison budget than Democrat Davis did. But the Democrats shot down the GOP proposals, sparing the jails while closing health clinics and gutting schools.

Cash from the punishment industry has so thoroughly corrupted the California Democrats that it now stands to the right of the GOP on prison spending.

For a fee, Democrat Davis has sacrificed an entire generation of blacks and Latinos. Ditto for our irreplaceable old-growth forests.

On the campaign trail, Davis promised he would ensure that “all old growth forests are spared the lumberjack’s axe.” But shortly after being elected, Davis held a fundraiser at the second largest timber company in the country, Sierra Pacific Industries. There he raised more than $100,000. He then promptly appointed two corporate timber reps to the Board of Forestry. Since then, the state has rubber-stamped practically every timber plan put before it — including plans vigorously opposed by the state Water Quality Board, National Marine Fishery Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Today, clear-cut logging is rampant in the precious Sierra Nevada. Imperiled watersheds are being destroyed. Democrat Davis let the fox pay him for the right to guard the henhouse. And now California’s wealthy “timber foxes” are getting fatter by the day.

And that’s not the end of Democrat Davis’ environmental sins. He vetoed two important bills designed to mitigate toxic hazards that especially hurt people of color. One bill would have kept radioactive waste out of dumps near low-income communities. Another would have added a $10 surcharge on each computer sold, to help safely recycle them. But Davis sided with big business against the needs of the most vulnerable. The list goes on and on.

And yet, despite this awful record, Democrat Party loyalists say we must defend him at all costs, even stooping to cheap scare tactics. They say that if Arnold Schwarzenegger wins the recall in 2003 (by a small plurality, at best), then a majority of Californians will (for some reason) vote to re-elect Bush in 2004. To beat Bush, we must save Davis.

Huh? Who thought that one up? Most Californians aren’t going to vote for Bush, no matter who our governor is. Even when we have Republican governors, Californians reliably vote for Democratic presidential candidates. But these “panic button” arguments are being used to frighten and manipulate people.

Let’s get serious: California is in a major crisis. We can’t just ignore the record, ignore the facts and give knee-jerk support to whomever has a “D” behind his name. That won’t solve a single thing. It’s time for progressives to take a rational look at the sources of the present train-wreck. And then, based on rational inquiry, fight uncompromisingly for real solutions.

Fortunately, real solutions abound. We can fix the state finances. Right now, the state’s tax revenues come disproportionately from income and sales taxes, which fluctuate wildly. That means we are super-flush during economic booms, but then super-broke during busts.

Solution: rely more on stable, predictable property taxes. We could increase property taxes on commercial interests and wealthy landowners, without hurting lower-income homeowners. But that would require fighting the corporations and the wealthy, who abuse Prop 13 protections intended to help smaller homeowners.

We could fix the political system. Three simple reforms — publicly financed campaigns, ranked-choice voting (IRV) and same-day voter registration — would dramatically undercut big money and boost third-party efforts. But that would mean fighting the fat cats and corporate PACs who like the present system.

We could fix our priorities. We could amend the constitution, requiring that we spend more on colleges than prisons. According to criminal justice groups like Critical Resistance and Books Not Bars, we could chop $1 billion from the state’s prison budget, without lowering public safety. And a progressive governor could appoint a Board of Corrections that wanted to rehabilitate prisoners, not just build more prisons. But that would mean taking on the almighty prison guards’ union.

We could save our environment. A progressive governor could simply boot all the polluters and despoilers off California’s environmental protection agencies. Then actual environmentalists could work there — imagine that! And he or she could endorse the new “Apollo Project,” helping to creating tens of thousands of new jobs in the clean energy sector. But that would mean challenging the big oil and the pollution-based energy companies that such a move would undermine.

In other words, every serious solution would require a major confrontation with the state’s incarcerators, polluters, and power-abusing corporations. And yet — as we have seen — those forces operate largely inside the California Democratic Party, not against it. (And the GOP is just as compromised — and full of bigots, besides.)

So only someone from outside either party can propose (and fight for) the solutions we really need. Only a tough, independent candidate for governor could go to Sacramento, stand up to the entrenched interests and truly clean house.

So mid-way through the summer, I set out to recruit such a candidate. I chose independent columnist Arianna Huffington. Once a right-wing gadfly, she has moved steadily left over the past several years. She has consistently championed populist issues: campaign finance reform, ending the failed drug war, opposing the widening gap between rich and poor.

On TV and in her writings, she has exposed corporate abuses of power and opposed Bush’s war. I knew that — if she ran — she would be able to attract enough money and media attention to press the tough issues.

So I helped launch RunAriannaRun.com to draft her into the race. When thousands of people sent her e-mails encouraging her to run, Arianna agreed to jump in.

Today, Arianna is number five, in a field of 135. She is the leading independent candidate. And she is the only viable female contender in the race. Also, her VoteArianna.com website has pulled in contributions from more than 2,100 grassroots donors — more than all of her major competitors combined!

What’s more: A true progressive could conceivably win this race. The California recall has no primary and no runoff. So with a simple plurality (25-20 percent or even less), someone could become governor of the biggest state in the nation and preside over the fifth-largest economy in the world.

If we stand together, there are enough independent and progressive Californians to win this election. Mathematically speaking, Arianna has a better chance of winning this race than Jesse Ventura had of winning his.

But the main barrier to a Ventura-style upset is not Schwarzenegger or Bustamante. It is our own cynicism and pessimism as progressives. Many who like her program are still gun-shy and shell-shocked from 2000. Rather than vote to fix the mess in Sacramento, they plan to prolong the Davis-Bustamante regime.

I ask them, “Name one good thing about Cruz Bustamante.” All I get is blank stares. Then they start talking about Florida. I say, “Don’t you think it is a bad sign that we have to look all the way to Florida to find a reason to support Gray Davis, who is right here in California?”

Certainly, her chances would have been better if more than one prominent Democrat were in the race. But the polls are all over the place, and they change every day. The only constant is the front-runner: not Arnold — but “Undecided,” who nets 30-plus percent every time. Plus there are 13 million eligible Californians who didn’t vote in the last election. And nobody is polling them.

Remember: Not one poll showed Jesse Ventura winning in Minnesota — not even polls taken on the day of the election. So anything could happen on October 7th.

We have one chance to break the hold of the big-money interests. The opportunity is here. All we have to do is seize it.

Van Jones is on two-month unpaid leave from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He is presently the Grassroots Director for Arianna Huffington for Governor.

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