In recent weeks, pundits have compared California’s political landscape to everything from a surrealistic painting to a Wild West main street moments before the big shootout.
On Wednesday, one of the high-profile gunslingers expected to turn this election season into a political free-for-all fired the first shot. Arianna Huffington, the conservative campaign wife turned progressive pundit, declared that she would add her name to the ballot for the October gubernatorial recall vote. Whether Huffington’s arrival will make the recall campaign any less surreal, however, remains to be seen.
In announcing her candidacy, Huffington echoed many of the partisan complaints heard from national and state Democratic leaders, attacking the recall effort itself as “a right-wing power grab” and a Republican effort to “hijack the state.” But Huffington, who will appear on the ballot as an independent, had little positive to say about embattled Gov. Gray Davis, or about the Democratic Party’s apparent strategy of keeping the ballot clear of Democratic contenders. The recall may be unfortunate, but it’s also unavoidable, Huffington argued. Betting everything on Davis, she argued, amounts to “playing Russian Roulette with the fate of the state and millions of Californians.”
Finally, Huffington insisted that the recall election, while the product of a handful of right-wing malcontents, also represents “a stunning opportunity for a progressive independent candidate to prevail.” Colleen O’Brien of Mother Jones joined six other reporters in speaking with Huffington Wednesday afternoon.
MotherJones.com: Aren’t you worried that, by putting your name on the ballot, you will split the Democratic vote, making it easier for a Republican to win?
Arianna Huffington: I think, on the contrary, that what is irresponsible is to simply roll the dice and assume that the recall will be defeated, which goes not just against the current polls that we have but also against any kind of rational evaluation of what may happen in the next months. Because, simply, nobody knows, nobody can sit here today and say with any certainty that the recall will be defeated. Therefore, the Democratic strategists who came up with that strategy are willing to sacrifice millions of Californians, the fate of our schools, the fate of nursing homes, of health clinics, of community centers, just because they don’t want to have an alternative on the ballot.
MJ: Can you describe why you’re no longer a conservative and when that realization struck you?
AH: Well, it wasn’t one lightning moment, it was a gradual process. First of all let me say that I have always been a moderate on social issues. Even during my Republican interregnum, I was pro-gay rights, pro-choice and pro-gun control — so the transformation has been in terms of the role of government.
During my Republican years, I really believed that the private sector could step up to the plate and solve a lot of the social problems we’re facing.
And then I saw how difficult it was to raise private money for homeless shelters, or at-risk children’s centers. I saw how much easier it was to raise private money for the opera or Harvard or prestigious educational institutions or fashionable museums. It was really that process, as well as getting to know Newt Gingrich and some of the Republican leaders É that made me realize that, contrary to what Gingrich said in his first speech as speaker in 1994, tackling poverty was not a high priority.
It was a process that was very public, because I was writing my syndicated a column at the time, and at first it took the form of challenging the Republican leadership to step up to the plate and step up to some of the promises they had made. Gradually, it became a real break with the leadership and the party, and the final straw was a column that I wrote in 1996, in which I criticized Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett for complaining that the Clinton administration had not been tough enough on the War on Drugs. I argued that this is rather hypocritical of Republicans, who have said again and again that you cannot win the war on poverty from Washington, to now be claiming that you could win the war on drugs, if only the administration had put more money and more effort in. That, for me, was so clearly irrational, and I wrote a column about it and received back the column from the newspaper with a handwritten note from Newt, which I have framed, in which he said, “Your column is strategically counter-productive”, which is very Gingrichian: he didn’t say it was wrong, but “What good does it do to take on your allies a few months before the election.
MJ: Do you plan to vote against the recall and vote for yourself, and how realistic a shot do you think you have at winning this?
AH: Well, I am actually asking the voters to vote their conscience, neither for nor against the recall, and I am not campaigning for the recall. But given that I have an agenda that I want to be able to implement, I will vote for the recall because I believe that I will make a better governor. I must say, I completely understand the people who are going to vote against the recall, and I also must say that some of my best friends and supporters in this campaign are going to vote against the recall, because they are legitimately angry at the Republicans coming in, spending an enormous amount of money and basically buying a spot on the ballot. Let me also say that, after October 7, I intend to campaign to address this issue and reform the recall provisions, so we really turn it back to the populist intent of 1911, when there were no paid signature gatherers.
I think it is realistic that an independent, progressive candidate can win. The Republicans are going to split the vote. There are going to be three, maybe four viable Republican candidates who are going to spend a lot of their own millions attacking each other, and I am going to be running a populist campaign. I’m not going to criticize the personalities of the other candidates, and I think, given how sick and tired the public is of negative campaigning, I really feel that the public is ready for a fresh beginning.
MJ: You said before you announced your candidacy that you wouldn’t run if Diane Feinstein ran. She isn’t running, but if someone else you thought was a viable Democratic candidate stepped up, would you withdraw your candidacy at that point?
AH: No, Diane Feintstein was the only candidate. Not, let me say, because I agree with her. There are many things on which she and I disagree, many national issues including the war in Iraq. But Diane Feinstein could easily have won if she were on the ballot, and I have absolutely zero interest in being a spoiler. I am really determined that no Republican becomes governor of California, in the same way I am determined to do everything I can to ensure that George Bush is not reelected in 2004. One of the things I really wanted to do in this election is to connect the dots for the people of California between George Bush’s economic policies, his perverted priorities, and the plight of the state.
MJ: Do you intend to raise and spend money as candidates traditionally do?
AH: I obviously am going to raise money. We are going to rely a lot on the internet. We have a fundraising capability already up and running on ariannaforgov.com. Howard Dean illustrated how powerful this new populist fundraising tool is. It was something that was dismissed until he proved that it could raise significant amounts of money. Also, I will be raising money through individual donations.
MJ: What about from yourself?
AH: No. I am not going to put my own money into this race. I want to make it clear that this is a very different race and also, given that we are going to have so many self-financed millionaires in this race, it is very important to make it clear that this is going to be a populist campaign that I hope will galvanize people who feel they have no voice in politics to come back.
MJ: You’ve been a prolific author and an articulate pundit over the years, but what makes you qualified to run a state the size of California.
AH: That’s the questions of experience. I really feel that we need to look at what experience has gotten us. I mean, just look at Gray Davis, at how many jobs he has held in state government, and where he is at the moment. It’s very clear that often, direct experience in government comes with an enormous amount of I.O.U.s, and our governor has been collecting them for a while.
I don’t believe anyone can go to Sacramento and clean house if he is beholden to special interests. It’s absolutely impossible. My strength is coming from my independence. I’m not going to be beholden to anyone but the people of California. The tradition of citizen-politician is a very novel one in this country and I’m very proud to be a part of that. Also, since I wasn’t born in this country, I cannot go any higher than being the governor of the state of California, so I won’t be looking over the shoulders of the voters for a bigger job down the road. All my effort will be devoted to my job, to governing.
MJ: Do you think voters might have a hard time trusting you, simply because of the shift in your politics?
AH: I think that the public really appreciates when anybody, whether a politician or a pundit says, ‘I was wrong. I have new evidence, my eyes are open, I’ve changed my mind.’ I think that the public is sick and tired of politicians who keep arguing in favor of whatever they argued for earlier, and ignore new evidence.
We see that again and again in Washington, of course. We see it the fanatical belief of the Bush administration in tax cuts creating jobs for example, which, no matter how many times tax cuts are not followed by jobs, is held as the holy grail, without any evidence. This is the real problem in American politics, rather than people honestly coming to different conclusions, in my case, in a very public way. I have expressed my disillusionment with the policies of the Republican Party, and I have been very consistent since my political transformation.
MJ: How can you run a successful campaign for governor based on a progressive agenda in this highly conservative climate, in this state and throughout the country?
AH: I believe that the primary reason that the conservatives have been so successful is that the voices from the other side have been so muted. If you take for the war in Iraq for example, the opposition to the war was so muted and so confused among Democratic leaders.
There are many other issues, including tax cuts. Again, there was no clear alternative being presented by the Democratic Party. Tom Daschle said we should take it one step at a time, and my answer is, “Why, what is this an AA program? Why should we take it one step at a time? The Republican congress had put forward an incredibly radical tax plan and only equally bold alternatives can succeed in the current climate, so I intend to provide a very bold alternative to the conservative agenda.
MJ: How will you combat the conservative agenda that seems to dominate the media?
AH: I think we can combat that through the internet. I am really optimistic when I look at the success of something like Moveon.org. I think it’s revolutionizing American politics. Here is a place where people with progressive views can go, they have 1.5 million members now, and they are engaged, they are proactive, they’re able to raise money, they’re able to support candidates, they’re able to raise issues. They are behind a lot of the ads against George Bush. They are showing what can be done when there is a clear, alternative vision, as opposed to a poll-driven, cautious, and very imprecise alternative.