So, the smart growthers have their candidate for governor.

No statewide public figure in California has been more closely identified with “smart growth” and “New Urbanism” than Phil Angelides. This affiliation didn’t matter in the Democratic primary. And it probably won’t matter in the general election, either. But it will matter if Angelides is elected.

The Democratic nominee’s election is not the current betting in most quarters, of course. Angelides – currently the state treasurer – is the anti-Schwarzenegger, a skinny guy who is a bit awkward on the stump, and it’s hard to imagine him defeating the Governator. But 2006 is shaping up as a Democratic year. Schwarzenegger is still recovering from last year’s political wounds. And the anti-Schwarzenegger approach just might work. After all, California has a long history of electing boring career politicians (Deukmejian, Wilson, Davis) running against the rich and famous (Mike Curb, Dianne Feinstein, Al Checci). So it is worth thinking about what Angelides the governor would be like for planning and development.

There is little doubt that Angelides, if elected, would pursue an aggressive smart growth agenda. The big question is whether he could move it successfully. Partly, of course, that will depend on how much political capital he will have if he wins. But it will also depend on factors beyond his control – most importantly, the infrastructure bonds and the economy. If the infrastructure bonds pass, then moving a smart growth agenda will require Angelides to expend a lot political capital on the distribution rules for the bond money. If the economy tanks, as happened to Wilson in 1991, then no one will care what his approach to growth is. But the big challenge will be the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), whose needle of reform Angelides will have to thread to succeed.

Angelides’ bona fides as a true believer in smart growth and New Urbanism are real. His primary opponent, Controller Steve Westly, depicted Angelides as an anti-environment developer — and his longtime connection to major Sacramento builder Angelo Tsakapoulos (who really does have the record of an anti-environment developer) didn’t help. Although Angelides has been a greenfield developer, however, he has not been a standard suburban sprawl developer.

He was the developer of California’s first New Urbanist project – Laguna West in Elk Grove, designed by Calthorpe & Associates during the early 1990s. So immersed was Angelides in New Urbanism that during the 1992 presidential campaign, he arranged to have Bill Clinton speak at the Laguna West Town Center and turned his Clinton introduction into a lecture on the virtues of New Urbanism. Clinton, characteristically, won the crowd over (not too difficult after the droning introduction) by making a joke about New Urbanism.

Since his election as treasurer in 1998, Angelides has been a regular on the smart growth speakers circuit – and has learned to use the peculiar powers of the office he holds to promote that agenda. California’s treasurer is powerful because the office was the final political resting place of the brilliant Jess Unruh, who spent much of the 1970s and ’80s setting up little-known but powerful committees controlled by the treasurer’s office.

As a board member of the California Public Employment Retirement System, Angelides has promoted not only socially responsible investment but also infill development, and as a result PERS now has considerable investments in infill projects for the first time.

As chair of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Committee, Angelides has changed the scoring system for projects to include proximity to transit stops and other smart growth ideas. As a result, “tax credit developers” have had to become infill and transit-oriented developers as well.

Angelides’ approach has been shaped partly by the powers of his office, which deal with finance. But his approach was also shaped by the policies of the most successful state-level smart growth politician of the last decade, former Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland. Eschewing a regulatory approach as too politically risky, Glendening instead focused on the state budget, changing spending priorities to encourage infill development and greenfield preservation.

If elected, Angelides can be expected to take the same approach – perhaps relying on AB 857, the mostly ignored 2002 law that requires all state actions to promote infill development, compact greenfield development, and protection of agricultural and open space land. If the $37 billion in infrastructure bonds passes, it will give him a huge smart growth club. But it’s not at all clear that he will have enough political capture to wield that club. And even then, he won’t be out of the woods because inevitably he’ll get sucked into the CEQA reform battle.

The bonds cut both ways for smart growth. The housing bond has $850 million to support transit-oriented housing, and the parks bond also has some smart growth rhetoric. But the big kahuna on the ballot is the $20 billion transportation bond. That bond is tilted toward roads rather than transit. And historically it’s been impossible for even the strongest politicians to muscle transportation money away from the pork barrel crowd and use it to shape growth.

So the transportation bond is just too big to ignore, but Angelides’ chances for meaningful change would be fairly slim – especially if the bonds got more votes than he did, or (as seems likely) growth patterns are not much of an issue in the campaign. But that would be only part of the Angelides dilemma, because if he truly wants to promote infill development, he will have to tackle CEQA.

Most experts agree that CEQA is one of the biggest obstacles to infill development. Nearly all infill projects have to go through a CEQA analysis, meaning they lead developers down the familiar path of uncertainty in terms of time and money. And because most infill occurs in congested urban neighborhoods, CEQA highlights infill’s weak spot: traffic.

So far, reformers have been able to only nibble around the edges – a little-used exemption here, a juice bill for Jerry Brown in downtown Oakland there. In theory, Angelides could create the perfect Nixon-goes-to-China scenario on CEQA. Only a liberal Democrat with a loyal environmentalist following could take on CEQA and streamline review for infill projects.

In seeking to streamline CEQA for infill, however, Angelides would inevitably get pinned down between warring factions. On the one hand are the environmentalists, who view CEQA not only as a tool of environmental protection but also as a tool of citizen empowerment – and who also believe that urban residents are among those citizens who need the most empowering. On the other hand are the homebuilders, who believe that CEQA reform is too important to limit to infill situations, especially because – as Angelides himself would be hard-pressed to refute – most new housing development in the state will still occurs on greenfield sites.

More than one American governor has been cut down in the crossfire over state-level regulations on growth – which, in California, is what CEQA amounts to. If Gov. Angelides had only to worry about spending money in a smart growth way, he would make some progress and he could call that a victory. But he needs a win on the CEQA front as well. Unless he can persuade the enviros that an infill exemption is a good thing – and then persuade the builders that it’s better than nothing – he won’t succeed as California’s smart growth governor.