There are two kinds of elections: the truly exciting kind and the June 6 California state primary kind. Face it: Dull doesn’t draw. It follows that the experts were not surprised when only 30 percent of 15.6 million registered voters went to the polls, the lowest turnout in the history of California primaries. With few statewide issues or candidate races to grab attention, what else would one expect?
The Inland Empire count was significantly worse: slightly less than 21 percent in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Such differences in voting rates have been uncommon in past elections. We figure that the Inland Empire’s mostly Republican voters found even less reason than Democrats to bestir themselves. The latter at least had a bitterly contested gubernatorial primary to settle, although the rival campaigns of state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly engaged in so much mutual mud-throwing that they seemed to be doing their best to repel the very voters they sought to attract. Mr. Angelides won, but at what cost for November? The nastier his primary campaign grew, the faster Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poll numbers rose. That’s not good news for his challenger.
Otherwise, statewide races were scarcely more than formalities. And California Democrats clearly didn’t rally behind fervent party activist Rob Reiner’s Proposition 82 ("Pre-School for All"), despite strong endorsements from public employee unions, the mayor of Los Angeles, and the usual Hollywood riff-raff (Martin Sheen, etc.). After appearing to be a shoo-in last winter, the measure failed to withstand objective study. In time, voter common sense and editorial opposition from almost every major California newspaper combined to crush it flat. Facing a 21-point rout on election night, a defiant Mr. Reiner proclaimed to the TV cameras, "I am not going away!" Oh, darn it.
Locally, partisan loyalists focused on two desert primaries. The 45th Congressional District stretches from the Coachella Valley west to the San Jacinto Valley. A Bono has represented it since 1992 — first, Sonny Bono until his death five years later, and then his widow Mary Bono. While the 45th is firmly Republican, U.S. Rep. Bono marches to her own drummer on such issues as the environment and gay rights. Voters must like her brand of moderate conservatism, because they keep re-electing her by comfortable 60-40 margins.
This year, Democrats say they’ll make a race of it. On June 6, they chose David Roth of La Quinta as their candidate over one underfunded primary opponent. Mr. Roth is new to the desert. He has never run for office, but his work in developing educational opportunities, particularly for minorities, no doubt created political ties. His liberal views especially appeal to many of the West Valley’s strongly partisan recent arrivals, including one or two prominent local journalists. It will be fascinating to see how he handles such likely hot-button issues as illegal immigration. Convincing the choir was easy. Now the hard work begins.
There’s no doubt that Mr. Roth brings unaccustomed vigor to this contest. But the numbers are against him. In their post-election euphoria, Roth backers chortled that Ms. Bono had received fewer total votes this time than in the 2004 primary. So? That was a presidential election year with a much higher voter turnout. However, those backers missed an infinitely more relevant fact: Running unopposed, Rep. Bono won 23 percent more votes on June 6 than those cast for Mr. Roth and his opponent combined! Short of a political tsunami sweeping the country between now and November, it’s difficult to see how Ms. Bono can lose.
Finally, consider the sad tale of Palm Springs Mayor Ron Oden, the seemingly sure-thing Democratic nominee to challenge Republican Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia in November for her 80th District seat. The post-census 80th takes in most of the Coachella Valley — with GOP strongholds Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and Bermuda Dunes gerrymandered out — and all of Imperial County, and thus should be a safely Democratic seat. Only it isn’t. Ms. Garcia won it against an inept opponent in 2002, defended it handily two years ago, and will try to do so again this fall.
But she won’t be facing Mayor Oden. Instead, on June 6 district Democrats chose Steve Clute — a name from the past. He held a regional Assembly seat for 10 years (1982-1992). Since then, he has spent much of his time trying and failing to win elections. In 1994, he ran against Sonny Bono for Congress; in 1996, he ran against then-Assemblyman Jim Battin; in 2000 he ran against Mary Bono. He lost them all. In a sense, Mr. Clute is an updated local version of Harold Stassen, the perpetually losing candidate. Yet this time he actually did win, albeit by a mere 89 votes.
Politically speaking, Mr. Oden’s career has been greatly damaged and perhaps destroyed. The underfunded Mr. Clute worked harder at one-on-one campaigning, which paid off with a 14-point victory margin in sparsely populated Imperial County — enough to offset Mr. Oden’s eight-point margin in the Coachella Valley. The mayor himself publicly blamed the loss on lingering resentment of his 2004 City Council vote to approve a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Palm Springs. That won’t wash: Valley anti-Wal-Mart zealots are wildly vocal, and very few.
His status as an openly gay mayor won him statewide plaudits, but probably did him no good in largely Hispanic, culturally traditional Imperial County. Still, he should have won the valley overwhelmingly. That he did not implies another factor at work. In the May 2006 Valley Observer, we wrote that Mr. Oden would have to overcome "distrust of Palm Springs … [and the perception] of its civic culture as snobbish and ineffectual."
We were too gentle. We’re now convinced that informed public opinion in other desert cities sees the current state of Palm Springs city government as nearly dysfunctional — with council and staff unwilling or unable to deal effectively with the ill-informed petulance of (mainly) new residents behaving like playground bullies. Given the recent spate of deranged civic ballot measures there, with at least two more in the pipeline, this isn’t an easy charge to disprove.
We’re suggesting that Ron Oden lost in part because his own political reputation was inextricably tied to that of Palm Springs City Hall. If true, it means that any Palm Springs politician would currently be a tough sell outside his own city. Meanwhile, Mr. Clute now confronts a far tougher opponent in Assemblywoman Garcia.
Reading as a Pastime
August is traditionally the month when we take this space to ramble on about books.
But in this month’s column, as you see, politics pre-empts reading — which, unless you’re Karl Rove or Howard Dean (we’re nonpartisan), is always a rotten exchange.
Still, here are a very few personal reading favorites in a once-over-lightly format. We’re hooked on history, and we revere Winston Churchill. So imagine our pleasure when we found In the Footsteps of Churchill: A Study in Character by Richard Holmes (Basic Books, $27.50). We know and admire Mr. Holmes as a fine military historian and splendid writer, unafraid to venture politically incorrect, but always expressing carefully reasoned opinions. He does that here in spades, seeing "Winston," as he calls him throughout, as a "superman" with both super-virtues and superflaws. For instance, he applauds Churchill’s wish, if not his realism, in wanting to strangle Bolshevism in 1919, and notes that even such favorable contemporary biographers as Roy Jenkins can’t admit that Lenin/Stalin’s "legacy was as evil as Hitler’s." This is an impressionistic biographical treatment of (we think) the 20th century’s greatest man. Mr. Holmes’ analyses are consistently original and often brilliant. Nevertheless, to be fully enjoyed this requires basic reader knowledge of Churchill’s life and times.
Analytical history can be very satisfying, but for sheer historical storytelling, you can’t beat narrative history written by a master. There’s no better narrative historian working today than Robert K. Massie. We’ve just re-read his novel-like Peter the Great (first published in 1981), which on our shelves sits right next to his Nicholas and Alexandra, and his two much more recent World War I-era naval histories, Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. Each of these marvelous accounts is comprehensive, balanced, beautifully written, and crammed with fascinating side-inquiries into pertinent events, issues, and people.
Mr. Massie writes in the narrative
history tradition of the late Barbara Tuchman, whose superb The Guns of August — now nearly five decades old and still in print — turned university historians green with envy because it was better history, far better written, and sold infinitely more copies than did their own tedious stuff. Worse, Ms. Tuchman then, like Mr. Massie today, was an amateur who researched and wrote circles around most professional academics. When she was finally invited to address the American Historical Association, successful amateur historians became respectable as well as rich.
The opinions in Valley Observer are those of Hank Stokes. You can reach him in care of Palm Springs Life.