University of Southern California

Election 2012

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Clinton, Newsom and Revenge

October 16, 2009

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By Sherry Bebitch Jeffe

“Don’t get mad, get even” — that’s the political mantra of longtime California Democratic leader Carmen Warschaw. However, too often in today’s charged political atmosphere, the thinking goes: “First get mad, then get revenge.”

There was a whiff of revenge in former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for California’s gubernatorial Democratic primary.

Clinton came to Los Angeles last week to woo Latinos (who are not a big Newsom constituency) and to hit the Southland fundraising circuit with the San Francisco mayor. The intervention of a former president in California politics, so visibly and actively, was unprecedented.

So what was Bill Clinton thinking?

Yes, Clinton wants Democratic voters to know that he thinks Newsom is the best-qualified candidate... and that may be the sum of his message. But the political media and some pundits — and, quite frankly, political history — suggest that loyalty and political payback drove Clinton’s support.

Here’s the loyalty part: According to the political blog Calbuzz, the Clinton-Newsom alliance goes back to at least 2003, when the former president stumped for Newsom during the mayoral run-off election in San Francisco. Five years later, Newsom endorsed and worked for Hillary Clinton in her race for the presidential nomination, becoming a national co-chair of her campaign. The endorsement of Newsom became a slam-dunk for Bill Clinton when L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, another strong Hillary supporter and national co-chair, announced that he wouldn’t run for governor next year.

Polls suggest that among Latinos, Villaraigosa’s exit will likely help Newsom’s all-but-official opponent for the Democratic nomination, former Governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose Latino political ties go back to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ movement in the 1970s.

However, Clinton’s endorsement of Newsom may succeed in attracting Latino voters to the San Francisco mayor. As former California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres points out: In the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, Bill Clinton beat Jerry Brown in California by seven points, then beat President George H.W. Bush by 13 points in the general election; and in last year’s presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a 67-to-32 margin among Latinos.

That’s where the “getting even” part comes in. Clinton didn’t dive into California gubernatorial politics merely because Brown — unlike Newsom — stayed neutral in the 2008 Democratic primaries. The bad blood between Clinton and Brown goes back to 1992, when Brown kept beating up on Clinton, the last candidate actually standing in the Democratic presidential race, distracting Clinton’s political operation from gearing up for the general election. Brown used the candidates’ debates to slam Clinton and his wife.

The Clinton-Brown grudge isn’t the only feud in play. Just days before Clinton came to California, DreamWorks founders and Hollywood powerhouses Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen endorsed Brown for governor and announced plans to host a mega-fundraiser for him.

Why? As Andy Spahn, their political consultant, told Variety, the three believe that Brown “is the best-qualified candidate to fix the mess in Sacramento.” They also contributed to Brown’s attorney general campaign fund.

Yes, but... could the trio’s endorsement have something to do with the rift between Geffen and the Clintons, which widened when Geffen hosted a fundraiser for Obama in late 2007? Those certainly weren’t healing words that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd quoted Geffen as saying: “Everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”

How will Clinton’s endorsement affect the calculus of the governor’s race here? Maybe a little more than it did in the Virginia governor’s race this year, where Clinton’s candidate, Terry McAuliffe, lost the Democratic primary. (Clinton is more popular in blue California than he is in purple Virginia.)

McAuliffe wasn’t dependent on Clinton’s fundraising prowess; Newsom needs it desperately. (In the first six months of 2009, still-undeclared candidate Brown far outpaced Newsom in fundraising. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Brown reported $7.4 million on hand at the end of June, well above the $1.2 million banked by Newsom.”)

Beyond a possible spike in campaign money and media coverage — neither of which is chopped liver in a California campaign — it’s not clear what Clinton’s endorsement will bring to Newsom as the primary race unfolds.

We do know that, until Clinton weighed in, there wasn’t much attention being paid to the Democratic campaign. Brown hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet (he’s only established an “exploratory committee” to raise money) — and he is still viewed by the media and most polls as the front-runner.

That’s one reason the early timing of Clinton’s endorsement was important for Newsom. It gave the mayor a touch of staying power when he really needed it.

One the other hand, the buzz is that Newsom’s campaign is looking to emulate the strategy that led Obama to victory over Hillary Clinton (Newsom’s youth and change vs. Brown’s establishment). How does Bill Clinton’s embrace of Newsom affect that?

Whether or not Clinton’s involvement in the California race boosts Newsom’s candidacy, it sure makes the campaign a whole lot more interesting.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and political analyst for NBC News, is an expert on United States and California politics.

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