California: Where is the campaign love?


US President Barack Obama speaks with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a bill signing ceremony July 6, 2012 at the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. President Obama signed HR 4348, the transportation and student loans bill, into law during the ceremony.


Alex Wong

SUNNYVALE, Cali. — “We’re tired of being the ATM for this campaign,” grumbled Melinda Hamilton, 41, former mayor of this shiny-new community in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Obama comes here for fundraisers and leaves. We just don’t like being taken for granted.”

The presidential candidates may be scorning the Golden State, but more powerful forces have showered the place with numerous blessings. Even as the rest of the country bakes under a merciless sun, balmy breezes blow in from San Francisco Bay, keeping this Northern California area an idyllic 75 degrees. In Hamilton’s front yard, luscious lemons dangle from luxuriant trees, palm trees line the broad avenues, and life is sweet.

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Sunnyvale’s residents know they have it good: median household income is over $93,000, courtesy of the numerous hi-tech industries in the Valley. Neighborhoods are ethnically diverse; when the front door opens on one of the million-dollar bungalows, a woman in a sari is as likely to emerge as a Japanese businessman, a Chinese doctor, or a young, white computer engineer.

But the obvious advantages of this Pacific paradise seem to have gone unappreciated by the presidential hopefuls. Especially by President Barack Obama.

“The last time he was really here he was opening Solyndra,” said Hamilton. “Look how well that turned out.”

Solyndra was a company producing solar panels that received a large federal loan to expand. The Obama administration boasted that it was investing in alternative energy, and the president visited in May 2010, to showcase the unveiling of a new plant in Fremont, Cali. But just one month later, Solyndra had to cancel a $300 million public offering, and a day after the November mid-term elections, the company shuttered one of its plants. In August 2011, Solyndra closed up shop.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney visited Solyndra this June — but only to attack the president for economic blunders and “crony capitalism.” One of Solyndra’s investors was a major donor to Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Obama has been in the state, of course: in May he staged a star-studded fundraiser at the home of swoon icon George Clooney, reportedly netting $15 million. In June, he did yet another swing through Los Angeles and the Bay area, drumming up support — and cash— with more star-studded money-making events.

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But the president has done no town-hall style speeches or glad-handing public appearances. There is little point: California, the liberal giant with its whopping 55 electoral votes — more than any other state — is classified as “Safe Obama” by the political experts.

“Obama doesn’t need to campaign here, and Romney doesn’t bother to,” said Hamilton.

The former “Her Honor” knows something about campaigning. In a contest she described as “brutal,” she gained the office in 2009. Hamilton had been a City Council person since 2003.

“It is really hard to be a woman in politics,” said the mother of two young children. “I faced a lot of hostility. People told me I should stay home with my kids. When I got pregnant, they told me I should not be in office.”

Hamilton ran under new rues, the “independent expenditure” model, in which outside groups can spend whatever they like to support a candidate. This is the prototype of today’s electoral brawls, authorized under the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision. Super PACs can pour tens of millions of dollars into campaigning with no upward limits, as long as they are not directly tied to a campaign.

“Groups supporting my candidacy sent out materials I was embarrassed about,” she says. “I think Citizens United is 99 percent responsible for the negative tone of this presidential campaign.”

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Hamilton is frustrated by the lack of discussion of real topics, such as the economy or the direction in which the country is headed. Social issues she had thought long resolved, such as birth control and abortion, are driving the debate.

 “Why are we still talking about this?” she asked. “They are trying to use biology as a weapon.”

Hamilton is not alone. Sunnyvale is home to many women professionals, who have put off childbirth until they get established in their careers. Hamilton’s circle includes many 40-something mothers of young children — women with mature views and informed opinions. They are almost uniformly concerned about what many have termed the republicans’ “war on women.”

One is Jen Good, a photographer and mother of two. She is politically active, and worked on the Obama campaign in 2008.

“He made so much sense,” she recalls. “There was a shared purpose and a vision. It's different this time around.”

Good finds the whole picture distressing. She has friends and relatives who support Romney, even though, in her opinion, their interests would be much better served by the Democratic Party.

“The Democrats used to represent the working class,” she said. “But now people with little education and no prospects aspire to be Mitt Romney.”

This issue of working-class voters flocking to the Republican Party has been examined by many social scientists. Thomas Frank, a cultural historian, took up the issue in “What’s the matter with Kansas?” a popular manual on how the Republicans captured the social debate.

Frank’s thesis is that issues like abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and other conservative touchstones have allowed the Republicans to gain support for their economic policies among poorer and less educated voters. The Democratic Party is destroying American values, goes the narrative. Only the Republicans will keep the country safe and whole.

“I think that many people are just brainwashed,” said Good. “The media — outlets like Fox News — issue sound bites, and people just accept them. They distort reality, and people don’t know the difference.”

The conservatives in general, and the Republicans in particular, are pursuing their own agenda, she added.

“The Republican Party is funded and fueled by corporations,” she said. “They want to be able to compete globally, with countries where workers require much less in pay and benefits. So they want to take away the rights and privileges of the middle class, they want to bust the unions, and take away the rights of government workers.”

One thing she finds extremely irritating is the way in which Romney keeps denigrating the government, both this particular government in Washington and the idea of government in general.

“I keep thinking, if he despises government so much, why does he want to be part of it?” she said. “I mean, Romney, why do you want this job?”

Obama’s message, that Americans can be better, that they can work to improve the situation, is a much harder sell than Romney’s “jingoistic rhetoric,” she acknowledges. And she also freely admits that Obama has had a very hard time in office.

“Obama has not done everything I had hoped,” said Good. “But he’s done enough. I am proud of Obama.”