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THE POST-ELECTION, BETTER-LUCK-NEXT-TIME REPORT : Why One Mr. Smith Couldn't Even Make It to Sacramento

November 11, 1990|WALTER ZELMAN | Walter Zelman served as executive director of California Common Cause from 1978 through 1989; he now writes about, and next year will teach, California politics.

ON PRIMARY ELECTION NIGHT, June 4, 1990, the air was thick with congratulations. The walls of my hotel suite were covered with blowups of newspaper editorials endorsing my candidacy for state insurance commissioner. The editorials (80% of the state's endorsing newspapers had supported me), as well as the many friends who stopped by, praised my campaign for its elevation of issues over gimmicks and negativity. They congratulated me for my aggressive independence from special interests. They lauded my intellectual and moral victory. They said I had set an example of how a campaign should be run.

I got 8% of the vote, finishing fourth in a field of seven.

IN THE CLASSIC 1939 MOVIE, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," an idealistic citizen politician (James Stewart) defeats big-money interests on Capitol Hill. Like Mr. Smith, I was an outsider and a citizen politician. But my campaign was far less successful, except at vividly reinforcing an inescapable truth in politics today: Mr. Smith can't get to Washington anymore. He can't even make it to Sacramento.

I was not naive; I knew the rules of the electoral game. For 12 years, as the executive director of California Common Cause, I had been the state's primary critic of a system dominated by special interests. I had consistently attacked those who benefited from the system, those who lived by it and even those who wouldn't support the effort to change it.

Campaign Rule No. 1 is the most compelling: Money Dominates. Candidates may get some free exposure through the media, but, with the possible exception of the most visible and controversial of races, the effect of such exposure pales before that of 30-second TV spots and slate cards that show up in mailboxes the day before an election. The money to pay for them comes mostly from special-interest contributors, sometimes from personal wealth. Candidates who can't get the former and don't have the latter are in deep trouble.

Rule No. 2 is almost as absolute: Running for Office Is a Career Track All Its Own. If you've been elected, you can get elected. If you've run before, you've raised money before. If you've gotten money, you can get more. You have a base, a network of donors, a recognizable name. Successful candidates are usually professional candidates; they set their sights on elective office years in advance, running again and again, expanding their ability to bankroll a campaign and increase their name identification--even when they lose.

Rule No. 3 is simply dispiriting: Credentials and Substance Help . . . but Not Much. Appropriate credentials and experience mean little without the money to broadcast them. Slashing attacks on opponents make better 30-second sound bites than thoughtful analyses of the issues. In the end, a campaign is not about whether you can do the job, it's about whether you can get the job.

And all these rules carry more weight in the primary election, where no party label helps voters sort out the differences among the hopefuls.

From the beginning, the odds were against me because my candidacy defied the rules. I had no fund-raising base, no personal wealth, no access to special-interest dollars. I was, at best, a respected enemy of those interests. I didn't fit Rule No. 1. I had never run for office, had never planned on doing so. I wasn't even on the first step of the electoral ladder. I was known to insiders, but not to the general public. So much for Rule No. 2. My strengths--credibility with the press, experience with the issues, (I was the only candidate who actually had done political battle with the insurance companies), support from consumer leaders--were not, according to Rule No. 3, valuable commodities. Still, in the summer of 1989, I thought I had a chance. I was running for an office created by the Proposition 103 insurance revolt. It seemed to be a job made for someone with my background. Maybe, for this one office, in this one set of circumstances, the rules could be challenged.

But even in the beginning, the good news / bad news aspects of my run were clear: An early poll of political insiders rated me the most qualified candidate for insurance commissioner. It also rated me least likely to win.

IN MID-JULY, SEVEN FRIENDS and advisers gathered in Santa Monica in my friend Phil Recht's living room to assess my chances and to plot strategy. Choosing a strategy and a message was easy. I would be what I always had been: the consumer advocate, the non-politician, the ethics candidate. A vote for me would be a vote not only for an independent insurance commissioner, but also for the higher purpose of changing the rules.

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