All the attention is focused on California's Gubernatorial contest, but the most important race in California this fall may actually be for State Controller.
The contestants are Republican Tom McClintock and Democrat Steve Westly. What makes this race so important is that the winner will be the odds-on favorite to be elected Governor in 2006. (And without getting too far ahead of ourselves, any California Governor instantly becomes a serious contender in the Presidential derby...)
Steve Westly appears to be a dream candidate. He's young and good-looking. He was eBay's Vice-President of Marketing and Business Development, which provided him with a fortune estimated at $100 million when he cashed out, and he's willing to spend what it takes to further his political ambitions. He has an MBA, he has taught business management, and he has long been active in civic affairs and politics.
If Westly is elected State Controller, the governorship is the next logical step when Gray Davis is termed out in 2006. Sure he'll have to contend with several other big-name Democrats in state-wide offices (e.g., Bustamante, Lockyer, Angelides, O'Connell) who also have their eye on the top spot. But they are all old-time politicians with lots of baggage. Westly will be a fresh face and have a huge financial advantage. I think Democrats will fall all over themselves trying to latch on to a rising political star.
On the Republican side, Tom McClintock is the most principled and articulate Republican officeholder in California. [Full disclosure: I know Tom; he is my State Senator; and I am highly biased in his favor.] Tom isn't afraid to take strong stands on issues, and he loves to root out waste and corruption in government. For example, when Republican Insurance Comissioner Chuck Quackenbush was accused of various corrupt practices, Tom was on the committee which investigated the scandals. Tom helped dig out the truth rather than cover it up, and was largely responsible for forcing Quackenbush's resignation with the threat of almost-certain impeachment.
Tom McClintock has achieved a fair amount of statewide name recognition for his crusade to abolish the car tax (a.k.a. Vehicle License Fee) and to try to cut the bloated state budget. He is directly responsible for cutting the car tax by two-thirds and saving California taxpayers many billions of dollars. Tom writes numerous brilliant op-eds, and is an excellent speaker and debater. Having listened to a number of his talks, I can attest that they are both moving and intellectual; it's not unusual for a McClintock speech to get into a detailed explanation of the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers and how they relate to the proper role of government.
Tom's weakness is that he isn't personally wealthy like Westly, so he'll be at a significant financial disadvantage. He'll try to make up for it by clever publicity and advertising, like his "Cousin Angus McClintock" skinflint commercials.
At the moment Tom is the only statewide Republican candidate who has a better-than-even chance of winning. The just-released Field Poll shows him leading Westly by 12% points. The related story in the Sacramento Bee says that "One campaign likely to attract big bucks and heated debate is that of controller. Tom McClintock, a Republican senator from Simi Valley, leads former eBay executive Steve Westly by 42 percent to 30 percent—with 28 percent of voters undecided."
If Tom can hang onto that lead in the face of a wave of heavy Westly advertising, he might well end up after November as the only Republican to hold statewide office. And if he does get elected, he is going to use his position as State Controller to audit the heck out of every state agency. I suspect he'd also refuse to cut checks for insanities like Gray Davis' secret purchases of electricity at incredibly high prices last year. Tom will expose corrupt and wasteful bureaucratic suckers like sunlight on vampires. [I just saw Blade II the other night and had to throw that in there.]
After four years as State Controller, the governorship would be the next logical step. Tom would first have to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Republican primary. But after the experience with Bill Simon, Republicans may be leery of risking the nomination of another political neophyte, even one as famous as Schwarzenegger. And it is still conservatives who pick the candidates in the primary; Schwarzenegger is a moderate-to-liberal Republican.
It will be a useful trial-by-fire. If McClintock can defeat The Terminator in 2006, how tough can a Democrat be?
So forget the Governor's race (well, maybe that's asking a bit too much). Focus on State Controller -- that's where California's future is riding.