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The State | George Skelton CAPITOL JOURNAL

Attorney General's Office Is Catbird Seat for Gubernatorial Hopeful Lockyer

March 31, 2003|George Skelton


In his 17th floor office, with its panoramic view of the nearby Capitol and distant coastal mountains, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is working through a stack of "management decisions" -- staff memos wrapped in blue covers. The one at the moment involves fish served in restaurants to pregnant women.

Fish such as swordfish, shark and tuna (ahi and albacore). These creatures, in particular, contain mercury that can cause cancer and birth defects.

The targeted restaurants range from Denny's to Morton's, Carrows to Benihana. State law requires them to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings to customers about carcinogens and reproductive toxins. They're not doing it, Lockyer claims.

So he decides to sue.

"I'm defending state law," he says. "That's mostly what we do here."

Other "management decisions" on his desk involve a nuclear reactor in San Luis Obispo County, banking regulations, Lloyds of London insurance....

Last year, Lockyer made 2,500 management decisions before his staff stopped counting.

For a consumer-oriented Democrat, occupying the attorney general's office is like being the proverbial kid in the candy shop. Every conceivable state issue is within his grasp.

He gets far more media attention than any other state officeholder, except the governor. And his attention is a lot more favorable than the governor's.

Just this month, Lockyer has made headlines by:

* Filing a civil suit accusing a prominent charity fund-raiser and socialite of defrauding entertainment and political luminaries by misdirecting $1.5 million in donations.

* Coordinating the investigation of 70 energy companies and public utilities. Evidence of massive price gouging was given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "California was plundered, defrauded and ripped off by the energy pirates," declared the AG, who knows how to get quoted.

* Filing Medi-Cal fraud charges against four Southern California dental clinics that he accuses of mistreating hundreds of poor children. "These scammers not only put the health of innocent people at risk, they also ripped off California taxpayers."

The list is long.

Today, he'll tour California to unveil a new program aimed at ending nuisance phone calls by telemarketers.

His proudest achievement so far is ramping up DNA testing. He sponsored bills to modernize a state lab, provide money to local law enforcement and require DNA testing for more crimes.

"Four years ago, they were catching one guy a year with DNA," Lockyer says. "Now they're catching one a day."

Guys like rapists and child molesters.

In this job, you get to be called the state's top cop.

If you're running for governor -- and aren't already governor -- there's no better ballot designation than attorney general.

"The basic message is: 'Attorney general fights for ordinary people,' " notes political consultant Darry Sragow, who's not associated with Lockyer.

It's why more modern governors have ascended from the AG's office than anyplace else: Earl Warren, Pat Brown and George Deukmejian. Two other AGs were nominated for governor.

Lockyer, 61, was a legislator for 25 years, rising to Senate leader. He'll be termed-out as AG in 2006. "The truth is, if it weren't for term limits, I'd stay here and do this," he says. "This would be my first choice.

"I feel productive, like I'm not ready to retire."

Lockyer's best -- and likely last -- shot at becoming governor will be in 2006. And he's running. Not officially, but there's no doubt.

He has $10 million stashed. He has lined up arguably California's premier political ad-maker, Bill Carrick. And "last week," he says, "I signed up Eli Broad in L.A. as a co-chair." That's Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist and political patron.

"I want to be Pat Brown II," says the California native, asserting that politicians have failed to plan for the next generation, as Brown did.

His chief rivals for the Democrat nomination, so far, are state Treasurer Phil Angelides, 49, who also talks up Pat Brown and has $10 million banked, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, 49, who some think will wind up running for treasurer.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a potential Republican candidate, sent Lockyer a $152 bottle of wine after the last election. It was his thanks for Lockyer's co-sponsorship of the actor's after-school initiative. "We're personal friends," Lockyer says. "I've been to the set to watch him film 'Terminator'....

"I hope he supports me rather than run himself. But if he runs, even Arnold will have to learn what it's like to lose."

The race is three years away. The political climate can change and probably will. Gov. Gray Davis could foil the atmosphere for any Democrat. But today, you'd have to rate the attorney general the early front-runner.

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