State Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), declaring that he is "not tied to any of the lobbies involved" in the insurance issue, said Tuesday he will file a declaration of intent today to run for insurance commissioner--one step short of a formal announcement of candidacy.
Garamendi, 45, a former Senate majority leader and twice an unsuccessful candidate for statewide office--in 1982 for governor and in 1986 for state controller--is likely to be a major contender in the six-man race for the Democratic nomination for the post.
Among the four Democratic candidates with the most funds, largest organizations and highest name identification, he will be the only Northern Californian. Although he emphasized Tuesday that he will run a statewide campaign, having such a regional base has sometimes proved decisive.
Also, as the only legislator on the ballot, Garamendi would normally have an advantage. But this year, in the wake of the conviction of one senator, Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), on corruption charges and widespread public belief that the Legislature has been dominated on the insurance issue by the powerful insurance and trial lawyer lobbies, it may not be the asset it has been.
Garamendi, a state assemblyman for two years and a senator for the last 14, acknowledged receiving some insurer campaign contributions in the past, but vowed in an interview to return them all before the campaign begins. Unlike most Democrats, he has received next to nothing from the trial attorneys.
"Insurance is an industry in crisis," Garamendi declared. "It goes far beyond auto into health care, into the very solvency of the companies, into companies selling junk bonds. The insurance commissioner will have to get to the truth in all these matters, get the facts, and then act on them.
"Insurance is a crisis for all Californians. It is for me personally, with three teen-age drivers in the family, with eight family members who need adequate health insurance. . . . A member of our family is a diabetic. She's worked all her life, but now she can't get health insurance. That's unfair."
Garamendi termed himself a "proven problem solver" and said that if elected he will work on four major challenges he sees facing California's first elected insurance commissioner next January: implementing Proposition 103, providing medical insurance to all, curbing financial dangers faced by insurers and ending insurers' poor treatment of consumers.
In quick order, three other leading Democratic candidates issued slashing comments on Garamendi's announcement.
Board of Equalization member Conway Collis termed Garamendi "the nowhere man. . . . He was nowhere in the fight for Proposition 103. He's been nowhere all these years in the Senate on solving the insurance crisis for his constituents."
Former Common Cause Director Walter Zelman said, "My sense is that his goal will be to raise large amounts of money from Sacramento-based special interests and buy the election."
Television commentator Bill Press said, "I welcome him into the race, because John Garamendi starts out with three strikes against him. One, he's the Harold Stassen of California politics, a perennial candidate. Two, as a member of the Legislature, he's part of the problem, he's not part of the solution. . . . And three, he's a professional politician. . . . This is a job for a consumer advocate."
Press added that Garamendi "may be running as a stalking horse for the insurance industry."
Midway through a four-year term, Garamendi would remain in the Senate even if he lost the insurance commissioner's race, and therefore has what is known as a "free ride" this year.
But political experts noted that he has long been ambitious for statewide office. He received 25% of the vote running against Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982 and 38% running against Gray Davis for the party's nomination for controller in 1986.