LOS ANGELES – Here's a cheap little tale about losers and winners and dumb assumptions. I don't know how it will play out, but we'll still be feeling it in 2004.
California is supposed to be a liberal state, neatly in the Democrat column. We've got exactly one Republican statewide officeholder in Sacramento, and both U.S. senators are Democrats. George W. Bush wasted millions of dollars here in 2000, and he still lost to Al Gore by a million votes. This most populous U.S. state will be one-third Latino by 2005 — and Latino voters remember Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's attempts to paint them all as dangerous criminals trying to steal white babies and make them speak Spanish.
Today, some seven million of California's 34 million people will take the trouble to stop by the polls to vote on a couple of stupid propositions and primary candidates. Less than half of those people will decide the GOP nominee for governor. In this nation of 280 million people, about 3 million Californians will decide whether the Republicans can ride George W. Bush's wartime popularity to victory in 2004.
And there's the problem for Democrat Gov. Gray Davis: most people find him repulsive, if they've ever bothered to think about him at all. Gary Condit's dear friend dumped the state into a bogus energy crisis, squandered the surplus, and praises totalitarian Singapore as a swell model for California. The famously liberal Democrats of this state are forced to support a guy so bloodthirsty that he mocks Republican rivals for not being equally bloodthirsty on the Death Penalty.
Gray Davis was once dismissed as a faceless bureaucrat with the personality of an oyster — without the delicious flavor. But in the face of a serious Republican rival, he has become a robotic schemer with one mission: to destroy a popular ex-mayor in the GOP primary.
That ex-mayor is Richard Riordan of Los Angeles. Having run this town for eight crucial years, he left a massive city in much better shape than it was back in the Rodney King days. Riordan — a friendly self-made millionaire with an obvious affection for Los Angeles — was a Republican Democrats could love. He made the city livable again, much as Rudolph Guiliani did for New York City.
George W. Bush himself encouraged Riordan to run for governor. Despite his wartime popularity, Bush knows how important California will be in 2004. In 1988, his father beat Michael Dukakis by three points, after Ronald Reagan handily took the state in 1980 and 1984. Bush Sr. got a good beating in 1992, as did Bob Dole in 1996. And Pete Wilson's White House dreams went down the toilet with his briefly popular Mexican-bashing.
Bush, a moderate Republican who likes to speak a little Spanish, needs Riordan. Bush knows Riordan can beat the unpopular Davis — who is uncontested on the Democratic side. Riordan shares Bush's clumsiness at the podium, but both are friendly and decent people when you get close to them. Davis is, by all accounts, colder than an Igloo full of dry ice.
So what does Davis do? He dumps $10 million on television ads against Riordan, something polite people would call unorthodox, as Davis isn't running against Riordan in the GOP primary. According to Davis, Riordan isn't conservative enough for the Republicans. And Republicans are buying this?
This treacherous hit job is intended to push Riordan out of the governor's race and let the far more conservative Bill Simon go to the general election against Davis. Of course, Davis will win. Simon is a hard-core conservative and that won't work here. So Riordan gets shut out, Davis beats Simon in November, and Bush can kiss California goodbye in 2004. Many GOP congressional runs will die with Riordan's defeat.
The sad thing is that California's fringe-right Republicans are more than happy to lose again. They love losing. They haven't won anything important in years.
Paul Haughton of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies sent out an e-mail the other day to far-right Republicans. Here's what it said:
"God willing, on Tuesday send Bush and Karl Rove a message that this Party is ours."
Sure, dude. Is Tom Daschle paying you enough? Enjoying the gift baskets from Barney Frank?
Losers. Dumbhead losers. Here he is, Richard Riordan, a Republican who can not only win in California, but who shows just what kind of Republican will win in the years to come.
Whatever, nuts. In the post-Sept. 11 era, more and more Democrats like me will be looking for smart, moderate Republicans. I look at Riordan and see a guy who owns a great diner in downtown Los Angeles and supported an ACLU Mexican named Antonio Villaraigosa as his successor. Riordan's wife is a Democrat and he personally doesn't like abortion but he's not going to push that on everybody else. He could've retired rich and happy in Malibu but he worked hard on America's second-biggest metropolis and made it better in real ways we can see every day.
And, at 71 years old, he biked the L.A. Marathon on Sunday. You've got to admire a guy who can do that while eating greasy breakfasts every day while supporting Latino candidates while doing Big Money real-estate deals. He loves L.A., as Randy Newman sang. He's a Republican embraced by Democrats in this most liberal of cities. He is the future of the California GOP, if the California GOP can get over its love affair with losing. And, as California historian Kevin Starr says, this state is "a prism through which the United States is glimpsing its future." One in eight Americans live here, and the political and racial makeup of this big weird state has a habit of spreading across the country.
Nothing against GOP candidates Bill Simon and Bill Jones — two smart guys who will never be elected as governor — but a primary victory by either of these guys will only ensure that Gray Davis gets another four years to muck up the state where I live.
I'm a lifelong Democrat. But I just happen to be a Registered Republican this time around, and I'll be voting for Riordan.
Why? Because Gray Davis should be shoveling trash at the dump.
Ken Layne types from a shack behind his Los Angeles home. The author of trashy thrillers such as Dot.Con and the upcoming Space Critters, he has written and edited for a variety of news outfits including Information Week, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, UPI and Mother Jones. Since the Enron-like collapse of his Web paper, Tabloid.net, in 1999, he has been posting commentary to KenLayne.com.