Hollywood is not afraid of the Nader effect. Not tonight, anyway, weeks before the recall election. The dark, posh lawns at Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender's house in Holmby Hills are jammed with industry players attending a political fund-raiser-actors Dustin Hoffman, Paul Reiser and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) mingle with Endeavor talent agency partner Ari Emanuel, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, as well as producer / eco-couple Larry and Laurie David and a couple hundred others.
Throwing money at candidates is nothing new to an industry that heavily supports the Democratic Party, but this gathering has a different kind of buzz. The recall election has given Hollywood a chance to support an Independent candidate who, like Nader, or ultra-liberal Democrat George McGovern in 1972, really represents their political idealism. Tonight they're doling out checks to Hollywood darling Arianna Huffington.
Addressing the crowd from a podium rigged up in the posh back lawn, comedy writer and political commentator Harry Shearer (This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind) roasts Huffington in a manner you won't see elsewhere on the campaign trail.
"We've all enjoyed a number of great nights at Arianna's beautiful home in Brentwood," deadpans Shearer, clearly a hero to fellow comedians Bill Maher, Emily Levine and Rob Schneider, "and now the bitch has called in the chips."
Calling in the chips is what elections are all about, but the Oct. 7 election that will decide whether or not to recall Gov. Gray Davis, and, if so, who will be his replacement, has shifted the place where the most liberal chips are piled. Democrats are still firmly in control of state politics, but polls indicate the urge to recall is great among the voters. Subsequently, both Davis and the top Democrat contender for his job, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, have scrambled noticeably to the left in order to shore up their power base.
This is unusual for modern elections, which for decades have seen candidates collapsing into the center. But Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo have been grabbing unprecedented media exposure, steadily challenging Davis and Bustamante, driving them out of their centrist positions. A similar process has also taken place among Republicans. The wide array of voter choices-and the long shadow of the Bush Administration across both parties-has so fragmented the electorate that the two main parties have abandoned crossover votes in hopes of creating strong, identifiable, highly polarizing platforms.
The Democrats, for once, are forced to determine what it means to be Democrats.
Hollywood will help bankroll that process, too, of course. Many of Hollywood's big-money donors, like big-money donors across the state, have also given money to Davis' campaign, Californians Against the Costly Recall, and a few have even given to Schwarzenegger. "I don't think there's any lack of money for Democrats in California," says Ed Bender of campaign-finance monitors Followthemoney.com.
But this is one election the two parties have not been able to control. For instance, more than 3,000 small contributors gave Huffington upwards of $730,000. Sizeable numbers of new voter registrations are also being reported in certain counties, which won't even be tabulated until Oct. 2; no one knows if they're boosting either party, or neither, or how many of them will actually vote. The resulting uncertainty has forced the parties to solidify their message, even while the recall itself has damaged the very idea of elections.
"If Madison, Jefferson and Franklin had seen what is going on here, they would have said, "Aw, fuck it, we did better farming,'" jokes emcee Bill Maher at the Huffington event. Recognizing the uniqueness of big Hollywood endorsements for an Independent, however, he adds: "Arianna is an outsider and she knows how the system works. She has exposed this system, and that's why they don't want her in the race."
"When there's a third or fourth candidate in the mix, and they come from distinctly different viewpoints, the dynamics of the race change dramatically," says Bill Hillsman, a Huffington political consultant who also ran Jesse Ventura's successful Reform Party campaign for governor of Minnesota. "I had so much trouble explaining to the press what was going on in Ventura's race, because they just kept thinking, "Oh, it's the Democrat vs. the Republican.' But it's not."
Instead, Hillsman explains, all the candidates get pushed to more radical positions. "In this race, you've got candidates who are taking part in most of the debates who have very progressive agendas. So they're pushing toward the left."
"Notice that Gov. Davis suddenly calls himself a "progressive,' and he's suddenly supporting a lot of the issues that I worked for in the last campaign, and which he opposed," says Peter Camejo. "Like the driver's license [for illegal immigrants], like more rights for gays and lesbians, like the Privacy Act. Even environmental laws. What is making Davis act this way? It's the recall. It took a Republican to make the Democrat support some Green issues."
In an ordinary election, issues usually get narrowed down to questions of personal morality (Republican Bill Simon's 2002 gubernatorial campaign was scuttled when his business was fined $80 million for fraud), slight changes in tax structure and state healthcare programs-issues of critical importance to those over 55, who vote in the highest numbers.
Not this time. During the current campaign, candidates ran smack into Proposition 13, considered the most sacred text in all California tax code, debating changes that would make the wealthy (read: over 55) and corporations to pay their fare share. Asked if this would have come up without Huffington or Camejo, California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres quipped, "No, it would not have. Politicians are afraid of the holy grail of tax reform, Prop. 13."
But Prop. 13, which was also brought up by Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign advisor, Warren Buffett, was only the first pebble in an avalanche of progressive issues. Mainstream party candidates have had to defend massive campaign contributions, particularly from Indian gaming tribes. The issue of how, exactly, energy companies were allowed to bilk the state of a reported $43 billion comes up constantly, with centrist Democrats looking culpable for going along with Republican-led deregulation. The contentious, frequent debates have forced candidates to declare themselves about Prop. 54, immigration issues, funding for education, renewable energies, prison construction and prison guard pay raises, federal Drug Enforcement Agency raids on legal medical marijuana patients and life sentences for non-violent offenders under three strikes, among other hot topics. These are all issues the Democrats would dearly like to avoid.
Davis, who is technically not running an "election" campaign, has avoided a lot of them, while trying to rack up as many quick lefty face-savers as possible-for instance, pushing through state purchases of critical habitat in the Ballona Wetlands and Ahmanson Ranch, sites of two decades-old environmental debates.
"[Davis] realizes that he better make his bed somewhere," says gubernatorial candidate Bruce Margolin, a criminal trial lawyer and Los Angeles head of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. "I understand that [State Senate President Pro-Tem] John Burton and him are getting along a little better now," he adds, referring to Burton's status as one of the most consistently progressive members of the Legislature.
Bustamante, however, hasn't slid by that easily. Huffington has attacked him relentlessly about using a campaign finance law loophole to accept more than $4 million from Indian gaming tribes and pushed him to fight Prop. 54, which would prohibit the state from collecting race data that can track matters like discrimination or racial profiling. Bustamante then announced he would the money to battle Prop. 54-but do it by including that message in his own campaign ads. At a Sept. 9 debate at L.A's Patriotic Hall, Huffington harangued Bustamante: "You should give that money back to the tribes and let them use it against Prop. 54."
Bustamante spent the money on campaign ads. Now a court has ruled this loophole money was illegal, which gives the impression that Huffington was right all along. This is dialogue that never would have happened in a regular two-party campaign, because neither party can afford an in-depth look at where the money comes from.
Similarly, Camejo has been hammering on the issue of a "fair tax," which would eliminate loopholes that let the state's wealthiest residents pay a lower percentage in state taxes than its poorest residents. When Bustamante waffled during the Sept. 24 Sacramento debate, Camejo barked: "You just can't say it, can you? You can't say you'll make the wealthy pay an equal amount."
Both Huffington and Camejo have also consistently shifted the blame for California's economic woes onto the Bush Administration, but both Davis and Bustamante seem reticent to pick up on this.
"You have a noticeable Arianna effect," says Van Jones, who helped draft Huffington as a candidate with his website, RunAriannaRun.com. Bouncing along on the campaign bus en route to Patriotic Hall, he says, "First, you've got the Green Party, wanting to be cooperative and respectful (Laughs). Then, you've got Bustamante; Arianna challenges him, and he turns around within two days: "I'm giving my money to Prop. 54.' Now Schwarzenegger is going to retrofit his Hummer so that it's environmentally sound."
Not everyone is convinced there's been any real change. "Davis has pledged to hold more town halls," Harry Shearer wrote in an e-mail interview. "We all need more of that."
Lesser of 132 evils
Peter Camejo sits on the front porch of the Quaker House, a community meeting spot on Normandie Avenue, where he was the only candidate at a press conference about reforming the three-strikes law. Flashing his brief smile, he notes that in 2002, he couldn't even be in the debates, because Davis barred him from speaking.
"Last year, 69 percent in an ABC-TV poll said they wanted me in the [televised] debates. Gov. Davis said under no condition would he participate. In fact, he said he would leave the [Los Angeles Times] building where the debates were being held if I entered the building."
Bill Hillsman has just finished writing a book about how both major parties collude to bar outside voices. After the 1992 presidential election, in which Independent candidate Ross Perot pulled 19 percent of the national vote and handed the victory to Clinton, both parties decided that all televised events could only be sanctioned by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. This front group cut Perot out of the 1996 debates, and Nader has never been invited.
"The two parties have a vested interest in holding down voter turnout," Hillsman says. "Partisan supporters tend to be the only people who turn out in low-turnout elections. And they're happy with that, because they can bring a lot of money to bear on a relatively small group of people."
Unless rule changes are made, this may also be the last you see of Huffington and Camejo-much less any of the other 130 candidates still on the ballot. Art Torres thinks the recall debate was a "healthy exercise," but he sees a return to two-party convenience next year. The California Broadcaster's Association, which sponsored the Sept. 24 Sacramento debate, will probably return to inviting only candidates who poll 10 percent or more. Obviously, there are problems with this system when one of the candidates, Huffington, runs specifically on an anti-polling plank. She tells her supporters to hang up on pollsters when they call.
There is no question that the debates are vital: the day before the Sept. 24 debate, the Public Policy Institute of California released its latest poll, which indicated that two out of three California voters expected the debate to influence their vote.
If Huffington attracts more voters than the polls have indicated-she's been at a steady 3-5 percent-she may have grounds to challenge this system. It happened in the Jesse Ventura race, where same-day registration proved the pollsters wrong by more than 15 percentage points. California doesn't have same-day registration, however, because it is opposed by both major parties.
On Sept. 25, Huffington made the first serious challenge to the two-party system by filing a 2004 ballot initiative (still to be supported by the right number of signatures) providing public funding for state elections.
In the meantime, California has an election that is decidedly different than the usual nose-holding toggle between the lesser of two evils. Off-radar candidates like NORML's Margolin are happy that the recall's wide-open structure has broadened the spectrum of ideas. It's leading to a wildly-unpredictable vote.
"I'm hoping that the public will say, "When I punch that card, I'm going to do it for something that I know I believe in," he says. "Not just for some vague personality that I'm not sure I know what they're going to do.'"