SAN FRANCISCO – How could California's charisma-challenged state treasurer even dream of trying to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search)?
Phil Angelides (search) cites the advice he gives his three daughters: "It never matters what the odds are. What matters are your beliefs, and what you do to pursue them."
The 51-year-old Angelides has become the first Democrat to officially announce he is running against Schwarzenegger, who is expected to seek re-election in 2006.
Despite some recent setbacks, Schwarzenegger remains popular in a state that has almost always elected its governors to second terms. But political observers warn that he should not underestimate Angelides, a man regarded as shrewd and aggressive by his friends, ruthless and mean-spirited by his enemies.
Angelides' challengers in the June 2006 primary are likely to include state Controller Steve Westly (search), a former eBay executive with a multimillion-dollar fortune, and Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search). Westly on Thursday announced that he has formed an exploratory committee to run for governor in 2006.
Stylistically, the tall, thin and generally scowling Angelides has none of Schwarzenegger's Hollywood glamour. But he insists that going up against a former action hero and bodybuilding champion only makes the contest more alluring.
"It will give me the chance to debate California's future on a stage no one else has ever had," said Angelides, who like Lockyer is being forced out of his current job by term limits. "This will be more visible than any other governor's race in the country."
Soon after Schwarzenegger got elected in a recall election in 2003, Angelides positioned himself as the "anti-Arnold," portraying the highly popular Republican as an out-of-touch plutocrat who failed to keep his campaign promises — a strategy that was seen as foolhardy until Schwarzenegger suffered some reversals of fortune.
Assailed by teachers, firefighters and other public employees, Schwarzenegger last week scrapped his effort to privatize state pensions, the latest in a series of retreats in the face of opposition from unions and other Democratic constituencies. Polls show his approval ratings dropping below 50 percent for the first time.
"Arnold was elected because he said he was going to do extraordinary things for people, but he's turned out to be an enormous disappointment," Angelides said. "The thing I find most mystifying is why someone who came in with such enormous political capital chose not to use it."
A Sacramento native of Greek descent, Angelides got his start in politics as a student at Harvard, protesting the Vietnam War and campaigning against President Nixon in 1972. Angelides went on to make a fortune as a real estate developer before returning to politics full-time. As state Democratic chairman in 1992, Angelides helped Bill Clinton win California.
But he also came under fire during that year's bruising Senate contest, in which Barbara Boxer narrowly beat GOP candidate Bruce Herschensohn after a last-minute leak from a Democratic operative that Herschensohn had visited strip clubs. Angelides denied involvement in the leak but later said the information was fair game.
"Angelides is a mean-minded, terrible partisan hack," said GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, who ran the Herschensohn campaign and previously worked for Nixon and President Reagan. "Arnold can expect a mean gut fighter who'll run a very hard-hitting, dirty campaign. He'll stoop to anything."
During his first race for treasurer in 1994, Angelides was widely criticized for an ad linking a primary opponent who did not support abortion rights to the murder of a Florida abortion doctor. Angelides won that primary but lost the general election. He ran again and won in 1998, and was re-elected in 2002.
An ardent believer in using the tools of government to help the underprivileged, Angelides is adamant that wealthy citizens should pay higher taxes. That view has led Republicans to ridicule him as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Angelides has also leveraged his role as an officer of CalPERS, the nation's largest state pension fund, to push for greater transparency in the financial markets.
"He's smart, he's aggressive, and he's creative," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who claims he and his fellow Democrat are "joined at the hip" in their work crusading for corporate accountability.