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Legislator's Visibility, Foe's Money May Yield Close Race

Outspoken conservative faces a multimillionaire in the race for state controller, a post Democrats have held for the last 28 years.

October 24, 2002|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — One candidate is a driven career politician without many friends. The other is a wealthy businessman who is using his own money to help bankroll his first run for public office. If the race sounds familiar, it's not. The candidates aren't running for governor; they want to be state controller -- at least for now.

The politician is not Gov. Gray Davis. Rather, he is one of the Legislature's most outspoken conservatives, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who, like Davis, was first elected to the Assembly in 1982.

Democrat Steve Westly is the multimillionaire, having made his fortune in the stock of one of the Silicon Valley's most successful start-ups, EBay. Unlike Bill Simon Jr., the other wealthy businessman seeking statewide office, Westly has voted routinely, readily opens his tax returns to inspection and has deep roots in California politics.

Democrats have held the post of controller for 28 years. If money decides elections, Democrats will hold it again. Westly had $3.3 million in cash as of Sept. 30, and is spending $1.3 million a week on television ads through election day, while McClintock had $277,000. As legislators go, however, McClintock is well-known. If he can raise money for TV time, the contest may be the year's most competitive so-called down-ballot race.

At minimum, it features one of Sacramento's sharper- tongued characters in McClintock against someone who, though new to most voters, is mentioned as a future candidate for higher office. Both are 46, married, have two children and have been politically active since their college days. Beyond that, they are markedly different, clashing on philosophy and on how they would approach the duties of the post they seek.

The controller is probably best known as the official who signs state checks. He or she also can refuse to sign checks, to the dismay of governors. Outgoing Controller Kathleen Connell incurred Davis' wrath, for example, by moving to block an $88.5-million payment in 2000 to attorneys in a lawsuit settled by the administration, and by refusing to pay a $910 bill for Japanese food ordered by state electricity buyers during the energy crisis.

Given that past controllers have made their names by clashing with governors, both this year's candidates are running in part against the unpopular governor, accusing him and the Legislature of allowing government to grow too fast and fueling the $24-billion deficit that budget negotiators faced earlier this year. McClintock accuses Davis of being "one of the most incompetent and corrupt individuals who ever served in that office."

Among the darts McClintock flings Westly's way: Westly has described himself as being part of Davis' team. From 1999 to 2001, Westly donated $36,350 to Davis' reelection effort, though he gave the governor no money in 2002. Westly says he would be bipartisan and scoffs at the notion that he is a Davis sycophant.

"Gray endorsed my primary opponent," Westly says of State Board of Equalization member Johan Klehs. "I have no difficulty saying [Davis] was way too slow in responding to the energy crisis.... I view myself as completely independent. He doesn't view me as part of his team."

In addition to serving as a fiscal watchdog by auditing state spending, the controller sits on 50 boards, including the Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization, which oversee state tax collections and policy, and the State Lands Commission, which has oversight of offshore oil drilling.

Seizing on McClintock's votes against environmentalist-backed bills, Westly says his foe favors more offshore drilling. McClintock denies it.

"Shutting down existing wells would drive the price through the roof," the senator said. "I do not believe [offshore drilling] should be shut down. I don't believe it should be expanded."

Controllers sit on boards that govern the massive California Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers' Retirement System. Past controllers cast votes on whether to sell off tobacco stocks and holdings in apartheid-era South Africa.

McClintock opposes using the funds for social ends, saying decisions should be based on rate of return and whether the investment is solid. Westly advocates using the funds to become "major figures on a national stage" to help bring about corporate responsibility.

After receiving a political science degree from UCLA, McClintock got his start in politics by working for former state Sen. Ed Davis. McClintock won an Assembly seat at age 26, lost a run for Congress and failed in a run for controller in 1994, falling to Connell by fewer than 170,000 votes out of nearly 7.5 million cast. He returned to the Assembly in 1996 and won his state Senate seat in 2000.

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