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Lt. Gov. Race Lures 3 Consumer Advocates

Self-styled reformers in the Democratic primary June 6 vow to make the job more meaningful.

April 17, 2006|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Three of the most active consumer advocates in elective office in California are fighting over one of the least powerful statewide jobs: lieutenant governor.

Though it carries no substantial powers, the office holds strong appeal because its occupant is next in line to run the largest state in the union.

Still, only nine of 45 lieutenant governors have become governor: Gray Davis was the most recent and one of only two who were elected to the post rather than having assumed it after the incumbent died or resigned.

As for the other 36 lieutenant governors: Who remembers the likes of Samuel Purdy? Anyone? Anyone?

This year, three self-styled reformers -- state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and state Sens. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) and Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) -- are running in the Democratic primary June 6 on promises of making the job more worthwhile. The winner is expected to face Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks in the November general election.

"I'm going to transform this office into something that's meaningful for the average Californian," said Speier, 55, noting that one of her mentors, former Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, liked to say "his first task was to read the obituary page" to check on the health of the state's governor.

Speier proposes to build on the few responsibilities the office is granted. The lieutenant governor is a University of California regent and acting chairman of the trustees of the California State University system; Speier says she will champion higher education in much the same way that another statewide official, the superintendent of public instruction, advocates for primary and secondary education.

She also says she would use the largely ceremonial role of president of the California Senate to hold public hearings and set up an "investigative unit" to delve into consumer matters around the state.

Garamendi, 61, was the state's first elected insurance commissioner, from 1991 to 1994. Voters returned him to the office in 2002 after his successor, Chuck Quackenbush, was forced out in scandal.

Garamendi has set his sights higher in the past, running unsuccessfully for governor in 1982 and 1994. But he says lieutenant governor can be a powerful post.

"The lieutenant governor's position is misunderstood and significantly undervalued," he said. "It does have the second-best sound system in the state if somebody cares to use it."

Garamendi said that as lieutenant governor, he would advocate for universal healthcare and higher education, and promote legislation combating global climate change. The latter role springs from the position's automatic seat on the State Lands Commission, which oversees California's waterways.

Figueroa's statewide profile may be lower than that of her competitors, but the 55-year-old has built a strong reputation among consumer advocates from her perch as chairwoman of the Senate panel that oversees the boards regulating California professionals. She wrote laws to block uninvited telemarketers and allow patients to sue HMOs.

She says she would use the lieutenant governor spot to focus on issues involving women, children and health. She differentiates herself as the one candidate with no desire to be governor.

"I want it to be a real position," she said, "so families can know that there's someone who is going to stand strong on the issues that I care about without looking toward that political future."

The keen competition may be mostly because of term limits. The office's current occupant, Democrat Cruz Bustamante, must leave because of term limits and is running for Garamendi's job. Speier and Figueroa are prohibited from running for another term in the Legislature.

Garamendi is the only one voluntarily abandoning his post; he says after eight years regulating insurance, he wants to delve into other topics.

As of last month, Speier had built the largest war chest, with $2.6 million on hand, eclipsing the $1 million Garamendi has and the $522,130 in Figueroa's account.

Considered by analysts to be the long-shot candidate, Figueroa is playing up her ethnicity and personal background in her ballot statement and campaign efforts. The daughter of immigrants from El Salvador, "I remember going into classrooms not speaking a word of English," she said.

Garamendi is the best-known of the candidates throughout the state. Some political observers say he would gain if Speier and Figueroa split voters from the Bay Area and those who want to support a female candidate.

On April 3, Garamendi had surgery to repair a heart valve. His campaign says it poses no threat, and so far his opponents have not raised the topic.

Garamendi's campaign touts his aggressive regulation of the insurance industry. Last year, for instance, he won an $8-million settlement from the nation's largest disability insurer while regulators in many other states closed their investigations without findings of wrongdoing.

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