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Garamendi Seeking Right Message to Go With Good Looks

August 12, 1985|KEITH LOVE | Times Political Writer

If California politics are in the middle of a nap, then big, radiant John Garamendi would like to give the wake-up call.

Magnetic on television, equally at ease with ranchers and intellectuals, Garamendi, a Democratic state senator from the Sacramento Delta, is stepping up his quest for the governorship in 1986, trying to develop a message to go with the good looks.

Campaigning from Bakersfield to San Luis Obispo recently, Garamendi encouraged people to contrast him with George Deukmejian, the state's low-key Republican governor--and with Tom Bradley, the reserved mayor of Los Angeles who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

In a television interview in San Luis Obispo, Garamendi said of Deukmejian's cautious stewardship:

"It's always nice to take a breather, to sit on the bench and take a rest. That's what Deukmejian has given us for three years. . . . But the state of California has never been one to sit down and take it easy. We have always been aggressively pursuing the future, always willing to be on the cutting edge."

In Bakersfield, several union leaders asked Garamendi what he thought was wrong with Bradley, a man they were inclined to like.

Garamendi replied: "I have a lot of respect for Tom Bradley and what he has accomplished, but for Democrats the problem is the future of our party and the future of our state. Tom Bradley represents the best of our past. But the past is gone. Even today will be gone in a few hours. We must address the future."

Action versus caution, future versus past--these are Garamendi's themes. Not surprisingly, the 40-year-old politician courts comparisons with the 1984 Democratic presidential race, in which Colorado Sen. Gary Hart challenged the older and more cautious Walter F. Mondale to debate the future.

Asked in San Luis Obispo how he, a state senator from farm country, could possibly gain the statewide visibility needed to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Garamendi responded:

"If you are addressing the future and you are able to attract those Democrats who caused Gary Hart to beat Walter Mondale in California--and we are picking up that support and the money that goes with it--you can gain the name identification."

Garamendi's three top aides worked in the Hart campaign. They ride around in European-made cars whose back seats are piled high with computer tapes and books like "Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge."

The senator himself is rereading "Megatrends," the best-selling book that promises to interest "everyone who cares about tomorrow."

In Bakersfield, Garamendi got so wound up on the futurist theme he used the word "new" as a noun.

"People are looking for new," he told the labor leaders. "They are looking for a clear articulation of the agenda."

Such phrases are expected these days from young politicians, but they sometimes leave Garamendi's audiences uneasy, and they point up a potential problem for Garamendi as he attempts to sharpen his message: Up close he's a little too smooth for some people's tastes.

Few doubt that the telegenic Garamendi--with his ranching background and Harvard education--would be formidable at the "wholesale" level of a campaign--that is, the stage in which a candidate tries to reach large numbers of voters through slick television commercials.

But he must first master the "retail" level, the early stage in which small groups of contributors and influential people must be won over if a campaign is to get off the ground.

One "retail event" recently was a meeting in Los Angeles of the California Democrats for New Leadership, a group of young lawyers and business people. After Garamendi spoke, several of those present complained privately that he was "too slick" and that he "used too many buzzwords."

Political consultant Michael Dieden, who held the event at his house, said he had not made up his mind about Garamendi.

He recalled being at similar gatherings in the 1970s for another "futurist," former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

"What Jerry (Brown) could do extremely well was go to an event like this and engage bright people in small groups," Dieden said. "He'd have them reaching for their checkbooks by the time the conversation was over. That is what John has to do. . . . John has to raise a million bucks by the end of the year to show that he's real."

So far, Garamendi has raised $150,000, but he says he expects a big infusion of cash in September when he names a finance committee with 20 members pledged to give or raise $25,000 each.

At another retail event, a dinner party in a wealthy suburb of Santa Barbara, Garamendi was surrounded by a number of people who could write big checks in the governor's race if they were so inclined. The event was organized by Betty Stephens, whose husband made a fortune manufacturing cat litter, enabling her to become one of the national Democratic Party's major contributors.

Served in Peace Corps

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