Battle of the accents

If Gray Davis is recalled, Arianna and Arnold could go head to head for the governorship this fall

Ari vs. Arnie

Ari vs. Arnie

Illustration By Dack Thompson

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet

It’s hard to believe, but this fall, those two accented icons, Greek-born Arianna Huffington and Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, may well be battling to the wire to take the California governorship away from sad sack Gray Davis, who has embarrassed himself to near unanimous public contempt in the state.

Recent polls show Davis’s approval ratings at less than 25 percent. More than half of registered voters say they would send the unpopular governor to the sidelines in a recall election, a number that’s bound to increase if there are viable candidates in line to take over.

With 1.2 million signatures already collected, the recall election is a foregone conclusion at this point. After the signatures have been verified by the secretary of state, there is an 80-day campaign period, set by the obscure recall law (which has never resulted in an actual recall vote any time before in California history).

With all the major Democrats frozen on the sidelines (if one of them breaks from supporting Davis, the governor is a sure goner), there is a huge opening for an independent candidate who has resources, visibility and populist credentials. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and many progressives are grinning ear to ear, thinking what was, until very recently, unthinkable: that they could have a horse in this race.

That progressive candidate is Arianna Huffington, the wealthy, brilliant writer and TV personality who has confounded progressive circles with her transformation during the past six years from the conservative wife of former Republican Congressman Michael Huffington to influential populist leader. Arianna Huffington has emerged as arguably the most visible and effective progressive female leader in America.

So, the buzz is on, with meetings breaking out around the state among activists and progressive politicos urging Huffington to run. Nationally respected African-American organizer and attorney Van Jones—who heads the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco—is one of the people supporting a Huffington bid for governor. Jones told his people that she is “anti-drug war, tough on corporate abuse, anti-war, anti-Bush, pro-environment, pro-electoral reform—and smart as hell. If anybody could pull this off, it would be Arianna.”

Another Huffington fan is producer Robert Greenwald, co-founder (with Mike Farrell) of Artists United Against the War, which effectively mobilized major Hollywood talent to speak out against the invasion of Iraq.

Greenwald said, “It is a sad day when progressives would be stuck in the horrible situation of being asked to support Gray Davis, who represents much that is wrong and rotten with the electoral system and whose record on social-justice issues is unacceptable. What stresses me the most is how Davis has been a puppet for the prison-guard union and an advocate of the policy of locking up more and more people for longer and longer times while the state falls off the budget cliff.

“Arianna would be a huge breath of fresh air. She’s got new thinking and dynamic politics, and she would put an attractive populist agenda front and center, forcing a new kind of debate in California politics.”

Huffington, whose last two books were How to Overthrow the Government and Pigs At The Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America, is a dazzling media performer. Articulate, funny and self-deprecating—she jokingly refers to her previous political life as her “Republican interregnum”—she is also an effective organizer and mobilizer. Recently, she took on the auto industry with “The Detroit Project,” which she describes as a “grassroots campaign to prod Detroit automakers to build cars that will get Americans to work in the morning without sending us to war in the afternoon—cars that will end our dependence on foreign oil.”

Huffington and her team produced a pair of impressive TV ads that received worldwide attention, including segments on Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News and The O’Reilly Factor, as well as a spate of articles in papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

Despite concerns about her conservative past, thousands of leaders and activists have become committed Huffington fans, as she generously publicizes their work, raises money for their causes and carves out a very visible public persona. She recently was honored by the Los Angeles-based Liberty Hill Foundation, which supports grassroots groups fighting for social and economic justice in Southern California.

Huffington, a former debating champion, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues. One can just imagine her in a debate with Schwarzenegger. The Terminator, by the way, is no slouch on the issues and is actually a moderate, in contrast to other Republicans. He supports gay rights and abortion rights and is in favor of gun control, but the contrasts between the two still would be stark. Greenwald said a debate between the two would “be like the Hybrid vs. the Hummer.” Schwarzenegger works closely with Hummer designers and actually has one of the massive gas-guzzling cars named after him.

As Californians are quickly learning, the recall deal itself is fairly bizarre. Virtually any candidate can get on the ballot with a tiny signature threshold, which suggests there may be dozens of candidates. Voters will be asked essentially two questions: (1) Do you support the recall of Gray Davis; and (2) Who should replace him if he is recalled? Whoever has a plurality of votes—which could be as few as 20 percent—wins and takes the helm as governor the next day.

The Davis recall has been engineered by conservative San Diego County Congressman Darrell Issa, a car-alarm millionaire and a candidate to replace Davis. Issa also has been arrested (though not convicted) for car theft twice.

Huffington’s former husband, a conservative Congressman and Texas oil heir, narrowly lost in a bid to unseat Dianne Feinstein in the 1994 Senate race. Huffington’s husband came out as gay after that election loss, the couple separated, and Huffington has undergone a very visible transformation from the right to the populist left. She was a regular guest on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, where she moved out of the right-wing seat, in part because of what she has said was columnist Robert Scheer’s political persuasion.

The reason a Huffington candidacy would need to be taken seriously is that sooner or later, California labor and progressive leaders and Democrats are going to have to come up with a candidate to support if Davis should lose. Naturally, they will advise voting against the recall, but the second question on the ballot remains: If the governor is recalled, who should be the new governor?

If the Dems don’t provide an option, and Davis is recalled, they are guaranteeing a Republican takeover in Sacramento—either Schwarzenegger or someone much worse, such as the inept Bill Simon, who, despite his inexperience and failure on the campaign trail, lost to Davis by only a relatively small margin.

The street wisdom here is that it’s all about momentum. There’s nothing on the horizon that suggests Davis will be able to derail the runaway recall train. Schwarzenegger is the one candidate a lot of Republican voters hope can snatch victory out of the clutches of defeat. Behind-the-scenes gossip suggests that, should Davis’ numbers look bad, Feinstein will jump in at the last minute to save the Democratic party. As the new governor, she then would be able to appoint her successor in the Senate. A lot of things could go awry with that scenario, however—and two of them are Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger.