Camejo seeks attention, votes in campaign's last weeks

By Louise Chu
Published October 25th 2002 in San Francisco Chronicle
In an alcove of a bustling dining common on the University of California, Davis, campus, clusters of curious backpack-toting students slow down to listen to a professorial-looking man booming into the microphone about equality and social justice.

His rhetoric sharp and his passion intense, he speaks against war and political corruption, in support of legalized drugs and birth control and why they should elect him to the state's highest office.

During the heyday of the anti-war movement in the 1960s, Peter Camejo's fiery campus activism earned him then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's attention as "one of the most dangerous people in California."

Now he wants Reagan's former job.

The Green Party candidate for governor's message has gone largely unheard by Californians, as he's been outspent by the major party candidates and shut out of the one debate between Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Bill Simon. But Camejo won't stop pushing to get his message heard by anyone who'll listen.

"It would be a three-way race, if there were three televised debates with me in them," said Camejo, adding that his main hurdle is not lack of supporters but lack of exposure.

Voters would like his message, Camejo said, if only they heard it. He says he's the one candidate who will institute instant runoff elections to allow voters to rank their choices and eliminate the chances of third-party candidates acting as spoilers; raise the minimum wage, which he says is lower than what it was in 1968 if adjusted for inflation; and balance the budget by raising taxes on corporations and tobacco.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll put him far behind Davis and Simon with only 4 percent of those surveyed. He's gunning for 10 percent, and with 13 percent still undecided, Camejo said he may be able to pull it off.

In an election year when two-thirds of voters have been lamenting their choice between the lesser of two evils, supporters say Camejo's refreshing sincerity -- even political naivete -- is just what voters are looking for.

"The fact that I have not been involved, my whole life, in the corruption of what is called the American political system with the Republican and Democratic parties is not a disadvantage," said Camejo, who's never held political office.

In Camejo, voters would certainly get someone different. Unlike Davis and Simon, the 1976 presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers Party wants to ban fund-raising while in office, abolish the death penalty and legalize all undocumented immigrants.

The 62-year-old financier and activist has spent much of his life rallying for political and social change, from marching for civil rights in Selma, Ala., to starting an investment firm that steers its clients' money into socially responsible funds.

Through it all, Camejo has stuck to his convictions, sometimes to his detriment.

His passionate oratory at the University of California, Berkeley, got him expelled, just two quarters shy of graduating with a bachelor's degree in history, for using an unauthorized microphone at a rally. Now that recent reports by the San Francisco Chronicle reveal the FBI and UC Regents conspired at the time to take down student leaders involved in anti-war protests, he's considering suing them for his degree and earnings lost from not having one.

His beliefs also got Camejo ousted from the Socialist Workers Party in 1980, after he and longtime friend and associate Leo Frumkin criticized corruption in the party leadership.

"Both of us are very firm believers in true democracy," Frumkin said.

Since then, they've found their voice in the Green Party, but Camejo continues to hold his socialist beliefs, jokingly calling himself a "watermelon" -- green on the outside, red on the inside.

"I have the same views I've always had in my life in principle," said Camejo. "I have changed my views on how to achieve it and recognize that you can be wrong and you have to be open-minded and listen to other people."

That quality appealed to those who attended Camejo's debate with Simon last month.

"He didn't tell them everything they wanted to hear, but he told them why he didn't agree with some of the positions they had," said John Gamboa, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a public policy organization focused on low-income and minority communities, which hosted the debate.

Gamboa said attendees were especially impressed by Camejo's stance for affirmative action and against racial profiling, which has become an increasingly hot topic among minorities after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Peter Camejo has been a shining star in taking that principled position," said Agha Saeed, national director of the American Muslim Alliance, which is considering endorsing Camejo.

By reaching out to various ethnic minorities, Camejo has helped shift the Green Party's focus away from its appeal to white environmentalists and little else, Gamboa said.

Camejo said his attention to Hispanic voters will threaten Democrats, especially Davis, who was elected with significant Hispanic backing in 1998. Since then, some Hispanic politicians and activists have complained Davis has ignored their issues, highlighted by his recent veto of a bill to make undocumented immigrants eligible for driver's licenses.

"You have no idea the anger that exists in the Latino community right now at Davis," said Camejo.

The New York native with dual citizenship in Venezuela acknowledges his ethnicity appeals to Hispanic voters but said he believes they'll side with him on the issues. "The fact I speak Spanish and am on all the talk shows and on television in Spanish is of course helpful. People sense this is a person that really understands our community."

A former broker for Merrill Lynch and Prudential and current CEO of his own investment company, Progressive Asset Management, Camejo plans to use his business experience to close off California's $24 billion deficit with a temporary tax hike and avoid another energy crisis by converting the state to 100 percent renewable energy.

Camejo has spent much of his campaign pummeling Davis for his fund-raising practices and refusal to debate him. Ironically, the left-wing candidate has found an ally in the conservative Simon. While the two disagree on virtually every major issue, from drug policy to immigration, Camejo, whose own younger brother is a Republican, said they've come to respect each other's differences.

"The first time we actually spoke together at an event, I had the feeling he actually listened to me," Camejo said. "With the Democrats who are around Davis, everything is like a war. It has nothing to do with democracy, exchange of ideas, trying to develop the correct policy by listening to concepts."

If he wins on Nov. 5, Camejo said he'd build an administration by including Democrats and Republicans, as well as Greens. He said the Legislature would welcome him.

"They would be so relieved to have someone they know is not there playing politics but actually trying to work with them to solve the problems of the state," Camejo said.

Working with $20,000 left in his treasury -- all built on individual contributions -- Camejo proudly reports a surplus and may even splurge on a mass mailing or radio ad in the last weeks of the campaign.

"If Davis could get as many votes as we get per dollar, with the money he's got," Camejo said with a smile, "he'd have to get 1 billion, 80 million votes."