Pubdate: Fri, 26 Jul 2002
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Laura Kurtzman


To Gov. Gray Davis' long list of troubles -- electrical blackouts, the 
budget mess, the Oracle contract -- now comes Peter Miguel Camejo, a 
rumpled investor with a stinging wit whose bare bones campaign operates 
from a battered Honda emblazoned with Ralph Nader stickers.

In an ordinary year, the Green Party candidate for governor would be little 
more than a colorful nuisance to Davis. But this year, half the electorate 
is unhappy with the governor, and Camejo could play the spoiler.

Statewide polls are showing the biggest surge in a decade for third party 
candidates, with Camejo presumed to have won the largest share. Some 
analysts say his support -- now 4 or 5 percent -- could double if more 
voters heard his message.

In a close contest, a surge for Camejo could spell victory for Davis' 
Republican challenger, Bill Simon.

After four years of playing to the political center, Davis has alienated 
many among his liberal base, particularly leaders in the state's large 
Latino community. They are upset about everything from Davis' failure to 
oppose the racial privacy initiative headed for the 2004 primary ballot to 
his failure to protect poor people from the spike in energy prices last year.

"He's had this kind of imperial attitude: 'I don't need you now,' '' said 
John Gamboa, executive director of the San Francisco-based Greenlining 
Institute. "And I think it's coming home to roost.''

Green candidates traditionally appeal to liberal white, middle-class 
voters. But Camejo, who spent his first seven years in Venezuela, may have 
crossover appeal. Fluent in Spanish, he has been assailing the governor on 
Spanish-language radio in a bid to win the community's support.

"Camejo knows how to play ethnic themes,'' said Antonio Gonzalez, president 
of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Camejo calls Davis corrupt and Simon too conservative, while playing up his 
own business background -- he runs a "socially responsible'' investment 
firm in Concord that manages just under $1 billion in assets. The firm 
screens investments to ensure good treatment of workers and the 
environment. Camejo's favorite campaign issues include universal health 
care and a "living wage'' -- both popular with poor Latino voters.

Camejo recently appeared before Gonzalez's group and "had the crowd eating 
out of his hand,'' Gonzalez said. "Some people say liberalism is gone; it's 
dead. But some of the stuff he says, it makes sense.''

The danger for Davis is that Camejo will siphon off a sizable percentage of 
the Latino vote, which could play a decisive role in the governor's race. 
With the white vote split in half, Davis' advantage over Simon comes down 
to his strong showing among minority -- and particularly Latino -- voters.

Those voters support Davis over Simon by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, 
according to a recent Field Poll. But that margin, though large, is less 
than the 5-to-1 advantage Davis held four years ago in his lopsided victory 
over former state Attorney General Dan Lungren.

Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant in Sacramento, said Camejo's opening 
lies among the third or more of Latino voters who say in surveys that they 
dislike both Davis and Simon.

"I've never seen it that high,'' said Madrid.

But he said that Camejo's firebrand politics could also turn them off. 
Camejo, who was the Socialist Workers Party candidate for president in 
1976, favors decriminalizing marijuana ``and taxing the hell out of it'' 
and abolishing the tough-on-crime ``three strikes, you're out'' law.

"Most Latino voters are not leftist radicals with some extreme agenda,'' 
Madrid said.

Camejo, 62, hasn't had this much fun since his days as a University of 
California-Berkeley campus radical, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan named him 
one of the 10 most dangerous people in California, an honor that Camejo 
still lists in his Green Party campaign literature.

But these days Camejo saves his invective for Davis, whom he calls 
"personally corrupt.'' Camejo is incensed over what he says are Davis' 
attempts to keep him out of governor's debates.

"They are doing what they can to prevent the Greens from being heard, 
instead of trying to defeat us on the issues,'' Camejo said. ``I consider 
that really immoral.''

Of Simon, who is also an investor, Camejo says, ``I like him.''

"He's the type of person I wouldn't mind going out for coffee with, 
discussing things. Davis, on the other hand, his attitude is total 
disrespect for me.''

Camejo's potential to muck things up for Davis hasn't been lost on Simon's 
campaign manager Sal Russo. He has written a letter to Davis' campaign 
chief Garry South, saying Camejo should be included in the debates because 
of his 5 percent showing in the polls. South has not replied.

"Gray Davis has been extraordinarily responsive, to put it kindly, to his 
contributors and alienated a lot of his liberal base,'' Russo said. "Camejo 
is a very articulate liberal who I think will appeal to a lot of voters who 
can't bring themselves to vote for Gray Davis.''

The Greenlining Institute invited all three candidates to a debate in late 
September, but they have only heard back from Simon and Camejo.

"Davis never responded,'' Gamboa said. "I thought, if we do it, we should 
put up an empty chair.''

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar said the governor has limited time because of 
his responsibilities and is still considering which debates to attend. As 
the incumbent, Davis holds the cards. He is likely to be successful in 
keeping Camejo out of debates, effectively preventing him from getting his 
message out to voters.

Camejo -- who made about $300,000 last year -- is running his campaign on a 
shoestring. He's planning on a budget of $250,000 -- ``might even be less'' 
- -- made up of his own money and small contributions from Green Party 
stalwarts, a pittance compared with the $40 million to $50 million Davis 
and Simon are expected to spend.

Camejo acknowledges that his battle is uphill and rues his obscurity, 
especially among Latinos. "You go interview Latinos; they don't know I'm 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens