In their senior year, they were married and enjoyed a surprise honeymoon in Hawaii when Garamendi was picked to play in the Hula Bowl college all-star game. They debated whether John should go on to business school as planned or, possibly, play professional football; there were feelers from both the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys. But then Patti brought up the idea of joining Kennedy's Peace Corps.
Mary Jane Garamendi, 73, recalls a spring day in 1966 when John and Patti came home for a visit before getting their degrees. "They said, 'We're going to Ethiopia.' "
"I said, 'Where is Ethopia? Oh gosh, that's so far away.' "
John Garamendi was 21 years old and had never been beyond Mexico when a creaky World War II C-47 transport left him and Patti in a pasture in southwestern Ethiopia--"about as far from anywhere as you could get," he says.
They lived in a mud hut, without running water or electricity, in the village of Mettu, and for the next two years taught the village children English, math and other subjects, with John using his ranching skills to organize local improvement projects.
"We saw everything," Garamendi says. "We saw people next to us die because they were sick." They responded systematically. "We'd find some task that could be done rather simply and quickly, and we'd fix that, so there'd be a success." That lesson, of using small successes to build experience and to motivate the community to solve more complex problems, is one he applies broadly. In Ethiopia, he worked with the villagers first to develop a water well, then a bridge across a stream to its school and, later, plumbing, electricity and improvements in the local economy.
And he carries a similar approach to problem solving into his campaign for governor. After the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, Garamendi quickly--and with considerable political risk, some experts thought--called for temporary increases in the state sales and gasoline taxes to repair the damage. California could not afford to sit back and wait, as Gov. Pete Wilson was inclined, to see just how much of the bill would be paid by the federal government, he said. The money was not as important as the idea of Californians joining together to work toward a common goal, to overcome the Golden State's decline.
"I've been very clear about this business of this tax," he said before the Legislature opted, instead, to put a bond issue on the June ballot. "It's a very important test of the spirit, of the capabilities of the community. It's like building that bridge to the school (in Ethiopia). The community got together. . . ." They did it. And that empowered them to do something else. And so it is here.
"Ethiopia. It changed everything," Garamendi adds. "It just intensified everything and has remained the pivotal point in our lives."
GARAMENDI'S POLITICAL OPPONENTS MIGHT CHUCKLE TO LEARN THAT HE lost his first big election when he ran against his best friend for president of the Calaveras High student body. Compared with the stakes of being governor of the nation's largest state in 1994, it was more of a social honor, says the winner, Erle Winkler of San Andreas, a realtor and owner of a health food store in San Andreas.
There were no hard feelings, Winkler says. "It was a friendly campaign." In a later election for senior class president, Garamendi emerged as the winner.
It was not the last time that Garamendi kept on running after a loss. In 1982, after just eight years in the Legislature, he was swamped in a premature bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, losing to then-L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. He lost a shot at state controller four years later. And after he had worked his way into the state Senate's controlling Democratic hierarchy to become majority leader, he was dumped by his colleagues. They argued that Garamendi spent too much time nurturing his own political ambitions and not enough attending to fund-raising for fellow party members.
An even more serious miscalculation was his abortive effort to replace a fellow Democrat as the top Senate officer, president pro tem, in January of 1986. Garamendi tipped reporters the night before his planned coup, and word got back to Senate chief David A. Roberti, who rallied his own forces. When Garamendi moved the following day to elect himself to the top job, he got nobody's vote but his own.
Garamendi had risen quickly in the Senate because he was smart, hard-working and productive, veteran Sacramento observers agree. But they also claim that he repeatedly was tripped up by his ambition to jump to higher office too quickly, particularly when he tried to leap over Roberti, who had been something of a mentor to him in the Senate.