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Education, Insurance, Controller Candidates Face Off in Debates


A slew of candidates running for three of California's statewide races faced off Tuesday in a series of debates that marked their first showdowns of the general election and that displayed their varied views of how best to manage the offices they seek.

In one debate after another, the candidates traded opinions about one another's records and the approaches they would bring to the offices of state controller, insurance commissioner and superintendent of education.

During the insurance commissioner forum, hosted and taped by Santa Monica-based Adelphia Communications for rebroadcast several times this week on cable stations statewide, Republican Gary Mendoza repeatedly accused Democrat John Garamendi of failing during his original tenure as commissioner in the early 1990s.

"You did more damage to consumer interests than Chuck Quackenbush," Mendoza told Garamendi, referring to the former insurance commissioner who resigned after a corruption scandal two years ago.

Garamendi defended his record and attempted to deflect his challenger. "Gary," he said at one point, "be polite."

The heated back-and-forth between those two candidates began even before the debate when Mendoza, a former commissioner of corporations and onetime Los Angeles deputy mayor, held a news conference outside the cable station. There, he accused Garamendi of harming thousands of Executive Life policyholders when the insurance commissioner took over the troubled insurance company in 1991.

"There are a number of reasons why Garamendi is unfit to be insurance commissioner, but none more poignant than his handling of Executive Life and what it did to tens of thousands of families," Mendoza said.

The GOP nominee was joined by Arizona residents Sue and Vince Watson, whose disabled 22-year-old daughter lost $1 million in annuity payments after Garamendi sold the bankrupt insurance company to a group of French investors.

Garamendi said his office originally structured a proposal that would have returned the entire investment of every policyholder, but the plan was rejected by the courts.

"At that point, we had no option but to reduce payouts for the larger policyholders, of which the Watsons were among," he said. "This is a sad situation. It's a situation that was driven by a court decision, not by my decision."

During the debate, Garamendi said that he built "the best consumer protection agency in America" when he headed the Department of Insurance from 1991 to 1995.

As the two men squabbled and interrupted each other, Green Party candidate David Sheidlower and Libertarian candidate Dale Ogden tried to lay out their platforms.

Sheidlower said he would aggressively defend consumer interests, push to end the use of ZIP Codes to determine auto insurance rates and work to create universal health care. Ogden said he would drastically pare down the Department of Insurance, roll back regulation of insurance rates and try to end mandatory auto insurance.

The debate between the two candidates running for education superintendent was more amiable. Democratic state Sen. Jack O'Connell and Republican Katherine Smith voiced their opposition to school vouchers and support for two bond measures that would provide more money for school facilities and after-school programs.

Smith, a member of the Anaheim Union School District board, said she would push for a return to basic instruction such as phonics, rote math and spelling: "We have to go back to teaching the basics."

O'Connell focused on his experience as a teacher and in the state Legislature, where he served on several education committees and wrote class-size reduction bills.

"I can use my experience," he said. "I can hit the ground running."

During the debate among three of the candidates running for controller, Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock said he would establish a waste commission to cut unnecessary spending, and accused his Democratic opponent, Steve Westly, of being beholden to large corporations.

Westly, a former EBay executive, countered that his experience in business and as a manager makes him the best qualified for the post.

He said he would rein in state spending through aggressive audits, and he touted his support from a broad spectrum of groups, including environmental and women's organizations.

Green Party candidate Laura Wells said she believes her party's policy of not accepting corporate contributions will resonate with voters who have been turned off by the influence of special-interest groups.

Added Wells: "I have a favorite Green Party bumper sticker that says, 'Democracy: Great idea. When do we start?' "

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