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Los Angeles Times Interview / The Governor's Race : John Garamendi : A Central-Casting Candidate Facing an Uphill Battle

May 22, 1994|Cathleen Decker | Cathleen Decker is a political writer for The Times

In the dog days of the campaign for governor, the candidate sitting down to answer questions in the buzzing lobby of a downtown Los Angeles hotel is hurting, literally and politically. Several days before, Insurance Commission er John Garamendi was fixing lights hung in a tree at his Northern California ranch when a branch broke. In the fall, Garamendi broke the smaller bone in his lower right leg, and the resulting ache causes a visible wince.

More important to his long-term prospects, Garamendi is still running behind state Treasurer Kathleen Brown in their bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, and that has left him in a painful uphill struggle to persuade Californians that he would be the best to carry the party's standard this fall against incumbent Pete Wilson.

Garamendi has long been known as an iconoclast in the clubby world of Sacramento; he proudly considers himself an outsider and loner, a man who spurned the capital's nightly rounds of fund raisers and lobbyist parties. But he is also a man with a streak of righteous ambition that has often rubbed his colleagues the wrong way--and the pay-back has come in this race as Brown has been crowned the Establishment candidate.

In any other political year perhaps, Garamendi would be a central-casting vision of a candidate for governor. A rangy, handsome man, he moved from college stardom on the UC Berkeley football team to an idealist's job with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the 1960s. He came home with his wife, Patricia, and started a family and, soon after, a political career. After a short time in the Assembly, he moved up to the state Senate. Not satisfied there, he sought the governorship in 1982 and the state controller's slot in 1986. Both tries were unsuccessful, and he remained in the Senate until 1990, when he finally won statewide office as California's first-elected insurance commissioner.

Though he likes to present himself as simple--"I mean what I say and I say what I mean," he frequently boasts--Garamendi is complex, and all sides of his personality were on display. Capable of detailing the minutia of governance, he also reflected his vision of California. The product of a rich ranching family, a man for whom almost everything, save statewide campaigns, has gone right, Garamendi is, by turns, engaging, caustic, scornful and droll. Most of all, he seems increasingly fed up with the Democratic front-runner, Brown.

Question: You've been in Sacramento as a legislator or government official for roughly 20 years. You've run for statewide office three times. Yet, you are positioning yourself as the outsider. Do people see you as someone who is part of the system?

Answer: Well, I don't think the answer is known. But what is known is that I am the outsider. The years that I was in the Legislature, I never became one of the good old boys. When my work was done, I didn't go down to the bars, or schmooze with the lobbyists. I went home, raised a family--been doing it for 20 years--and in the process never became an insider. I've also been very impatient with the pace of change in the Legislature and pushed the envelope of change to the point where it upset many of my colleagues. But that's just the way it is.

Q: Indeed, you became known as somewhat of an ambitious loner who wasn't part of the club. Is that a detriment now when you've come to run for governor?

A: We'll find out. I don't think it's ambitious after 20 years to run for governor . . . . I would suggest that Kathleen Brown, after 3 1/2 years in government, is the ambitious one.

Q: As you alluded to, you're up against a woman who has 3 1/2 years of state elective experience, yet millions of dollars in the bank and sort of media cache--

A: Who told the New York Times that if her name wasn't Brown, she wouldn't be running for governor.

Q: Do you resent that it's come to this state of affairs in the governor's race?

A: It's not a matter of resentment. Californians, I believe, will understand on Election Day that this is not a job that you inherit. This is a job you have to work for and earn. This is the most important job in this state for the future well-being of our children and ourselves, our economy and our environment. And that simply saying that your father was governor, your brother was governor and, therefore, I should be governor is not sufficient.

Q: What do you think of her as a person, as a candidate, as a potential governor?

A: (Pauses) You have another question?

Q: Why is that particularly touchy? I don't understand.

A: It's not for me to evaluate Kathleen Brown. It's for the voters to evaluate the fact that, after 3 1/2 years in government, she's running for governor. And, in fact, she began running for governor the day she was elected treasurer. What has she done? What has she accomplished? What has prepared her to govern 32 million people? What are her life experiences? What is her knowledge?

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