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Former Berkeley green Camejo takes aim at governor's seat

Judith Scherr
Thursday September 26, 2002

Green Party candidate for governor Peter Miguel Camejo racked up 9 percent of the statewide vote in the latest polls. Despite growing support, though, Gov. Gray Davis is unwilling to recognize his opponent in a formal debate. 

Bob Mulholland, campaign manager for the Democratic Party, argued that just like the San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t hand the ball to the opposing team, it doesn’t make sense for the Democratic Party to give space to someone who might take votes from them. Moreover, Camejo’s not qualified, Mulholland said, explaining that the governor has serious work to do, such as appointing judges. 

“How absurd that people who can’t get elected to the Berkeley City Council, run for governor,” he said.  

Camejo has lost races for a number of public offices. In 1967 the University of California student and anti-war activist ran for mayor of Berkeley. Three years later he made a run for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy. In 1976 he made a bid for president of the United States. 

It’s not about winning at this point, said Camejo, jubilant over the latest poll figures. It’s about changing the rules of the game so that minor parties can have a seat at the table. Allowing third-party candidates into statewide debates and having run-off elections would go a long way toward democratizing the electoral system, Camejo said. 

At 62, the candidate’s hair is grayer and thinner than during his earlier runs for office. He’s traded his campaign-trail blue jeans for suits. But the man Ronald Reagan once called one of the 10 most dangerous men in California for his anti-war rallies in Berkeley, says that his message aimed at “social and environmental justice” has been consistent over the years. 

As a teenager in 1958 he picketed Boston’s segregated lunch counters. He marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala. He organized opposition to the Vietnam war and he supported farm workers’ efforts to unionize.  

The Green Party candidate is calling for the following: abolition of the death penalty, an amendment to California’s three strikes law so that it does not apply to nonviolent offenses, legalization of marijuana so it can be regulated and taxed, elimination of no bid contracts and execution of campaign finance reform, including public financing of elections. 

Like the Senate Democrats, Camejo would reinstate the highest income bracket to close the state budget gap. He would also eliminate tax breaks for oil companies, eliminate the Proposition 13 mandate that allows corporate-owned property to be taxed at lower rates than homes and reinstate the vehicle license fee.  

In the past, Camejo has used a variety of tactics to make his point, including civil disobedience. He has spent time in the Berkeley jail for his political actions and got booted out of UC Berkeley after speaking at an unauthorized rally. 

“I believe in the rule of law and in democracy,” Camejo said. 

And seizing the opportunity to slide into a critique of President George W. Bush’s intent to go to war with Iraq, Camejo continued: “Bush opposes law. He opposes the world court.” A U.S. war in Iraq would be a violation of international law, he said. 

Camejo’s rapid-fire speech then veered quickly back to his run for governor and the governor’s alleged disregard for the law. 

He blasted Gov. Gray Davis for his fund-raising tactics, in particular, the May 2001 no-bid Oracle software contract with the state that Camejo called a “$95 million contract the state did not need.” The proof the contract was not needed, Camejo said, is that when the contract became an embarrassment for the governor’s campaign, it was canceled in July and never replaced. 

The Davis campaign has consistently argued that the governor is not influenced by campaign contributions. 

An unabashed leftist whose runs for president and senate were backed by the Socialist Workers Party, Camejo was born in New York when his Venezuelan mother was visiting her father there. He spent his first seven years in Venezuela, then moved to New York with his parents. 

In 1960, Camejo and his father, a wealthy developer, sailed in the Olympics for Venezuela. Currently Camejo is CEO of Progressive Asset Management, Inc., a socially responsible investment firm he founded in 1987 in Oakland. The firm moved to Concord a few years ago. 

Camejo freely admits his chances for becoming governor are nil. He says, however, that he has managed, in previous runs for office, to influence the political landscape. 

In his 1970 bid for the U.S. Senate seat against Ted Kennedy, Camejo said the pair debated three times. One of the questions posed to Kennedy at a debate at Boston University was about the senator’s position on an initiative on the Massachusetts ballot calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. Kennedy had yet to take a position on it. When Camejo came out strongly in its support, the crowd backed him up with cheers and applause. Camejo said he believes the debate was a critical factor when Kennedy came out a few days later in support of the initiative. 

There’s also the question of whether the Camejo bid could tip the balance in favor of Republican challenger Bill Simon. Locally, the Berkeley Democratic Club has not discussed the possible impact of the Camejo race taking votes from Davis. The Cal Berkeley Democrats have a policy of not talking to the media. 

Still, there are those who argue that the vote for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in Florida may have pushed Bush into the White House and that Camejo could similarly become a “spoiler.” 

That possibility looms even larger with the release Tuesday of the latest polling information from the ABC affiliate News10/Survey USA. When 849 registered voters were asked Sept. 21 and 22 for whom they would vote, results were as follows: Davis, 45 percent; Simon, 35 percent; Camejo, 9 percent; Gary David Copeland (Libertarian who will appear on the ballot, although he after spitting on a radio show host is no longer supported by his party), 4 percent. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. 

But Camejo throws the “spoiler” argument back to the Democratic party. The very reason there are run-offs on the local level and in other countries is so that a “spoiler” will not distort the outcome of the elections, Camejo said. In fact, the Democratic Party is the spoiler because it opposes run-offs, he says. He points out that if four candidates run for an office, and there are no run-offs, then someone who got 26 percent could win, even though 74 percent of the voters oppose the candidate.  

The Democrats not only oppose run-offs, but they refuse to debate Camejo and the three other minor candidates. But Camejo points to another poll that says the public wants to hear from him. 

An ABC/News 10 poll earlier this month showed that among 500 randomly-chosen adults, 69 percent called for Camejo to be included in the Oct. 7 Los Angeles debate sponsored by the L.A. Times; 25 percent opposed his inclusion and 6 percent were not sure. 

But, ever flexible in his tactics, Camejo says he’ll be at the debate anyway, picketing on the outside. “The rights of the people are being violated,” the candidate said.