By Tom Elias
From the time this year’s California political campaigns began taking shape last fall, they’ve had the potential to produce the state’s most viable presidential candidate in almost half a century.
It may be about time. For California has not provided the nation with a President – nor even a credible primary election candidate – since Ronald Reagan left office in 1989.
In that time, the strongest run by a Californian for America’s top political job came from ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, who lasted through only a few primaries and caucuses, His abortive 1996 run was hampered both by a throat problem that dimmed his voice and his strong 1994 backing of the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, which destroyed any chance he might have had for getting some Latino support. Gov. Jerry Brown also staged a long run, in 1992, but never had a serious chance against Bill Clinton.
Since then, this state’s top officials, the likes of Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have been no threat to national politicians in either major party. Yes, Schwarzenegger might have been a credible candidate and would have loved to run, but his Austrian birth rendered him ineligible.
So California has not only lacked influence at the top levels of American politics for decades because of its usually-belated primary elections, but also has had no skin in the game.
Just now, there’s a little talk about the state’s current junior senator, Democrat Kamala Harris. Her shrill anti-Donald Trump tone in several nationally televised Senate hearings has won some support among ultra-liberals nationally, but no poll has shown she has either strong or widespread appeal. Plus, the one time she faced a significantly financed election opponent, in her 2010 election as state attorney general, she barely eked out a victory even in this solidly Democratic state.
So it’s a safe bet Harris won’t be California’s next major presidential player. But there are some possibilities among this year’s crop of candidates, not to mention Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who makes noises about a possible 2020 national run even though he’s not running for anything just now.
The most likely future presidential contenders among the current hopefuls for governor and the Senate are Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current state Senate President Kevin de Leon, all Democrats. It goes almost without saying that Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who tried to run for governor in 2010 before settling for his current job, will seek the presidency at some point if elected governor.
His election emails for much of the last year have been replete with responses to national issues, from the Republican tax bill passed in December to environmental complaints raised by Trump administration actions. So Newsom could bring a national perspective to Sacramento. And he’s never been shy about acting on his ambitions and ideas.
If both of them should win this year – neither is an early favorite – either Villariagosa or Senate candidate de Leon could seek to become the first legitimate Latino presidential contender.
Villaraigosa has not seriously discussed a presidential run, but would have an immediate large-scale base among the Latinos who are one of the largest constituencies in the national Democratic Party. De Leon, who helped hire a former U.S. attorney general to aid the state Legislature in resisting Trump initiatives, plainly has a national perspective and makes it obvious he would love to lead the Democratic opposition to Trump.
But de Leon, from eastern Los Angeles, is hampered in his current campaign both by the fact that he remains largely unknown to many Californians and by his denial that he knew of the sexual harassment allegedly conducted regularly by his Sacramento housemate, state Sen. Tony Mendoza, in their abode. To many, his denials of knowledge and seeking to lead the drive for more effective prevention of such conduct in the Legislature suggest he may have taken a see no evil, hear no evil approach to Mendoza.
Just now, none of these folks draws much national attention. But, as Reagan did, anyone elected either governor or senator here can use California’s sheer size and its huge representation among national political convention delegates to fuel a credible run for the White House.