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With New Confidence, Westly Lays Out His Plan for Victory

As governor, he says he would pare budget gap by revamping lottery and pushing revenue collection. He sees tax hikes as a last resort.

April 19, 2006|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Once considered a longshot in the governor's race, state Controller Steve Westly looked every bit the Democratic front-runner Tuesday as he laid out his approach for challenging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the November election.

Westly, addressing the Sacramento Press Club with one recent poll showing him leading the Democratic primary campaign, strode the stage confidently as he offered suggestions for narrowing the state's chronic budget shortfalls. In the midst of a technical discourse on efficiencies in government, he joked with a photographer who snapped his picture: "You get that?"

Westly said he would be reluctant to raise taxes but would not rule out the possibility.

The hotel conference room where he appeared swelled with more than 100 journalists, political consultants and guests -- an impressive turnout by capital insiders. They came to see the occupant of one of the state's more obscure offices deliver a PowerPoint presentation complete with bar charts and state procurement projections. After Westly finished, reporters and TV camera crews surrounded him, prolonging the question-and-answer session.

Westly said the state can improve its finances through smarter purchasing, aggressive tax collection and a revamping of the lottery. Some of those ideas were championed by the Schwarzenegger administration in the proposed government overhaul the governor announced in 2004, though they have yet to be put in place.

"He came out with his California Performance Review -- a lot of sizzle, not much steak," Westly said. "He promised $32 billion in savings ... and when none materialized, he gave up."

A survey by the Field Poll this month showed Westly, who has mounted an extensive TV ad campaign, leading his main Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, 37% to 26%. More than one-third of Democratic voters were undecided.

For Westly, the gap reflected considerable improvement since March, when a Public Policy Institute of California survey showed he was in a virtual tie with Angelides among likely Democratic primary voters. In that poll, 55% were undecided.

At one time the underdog, Westly is now perceived by political analysts to have a good shot at not just knocking off Angelides, who has less campaign money and more prominent Democratic endorsements, but also at mounting a strong campaign against the governor.

"Schwarzenegger has some pretty high negatives -- not so much on his personality as his policies," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. "All Westly has to do is say, 'I'm different. I'm the new kid. I don't have the baggage he has.' "

Westly, he said, is "personable, likable, and has a great smile -- he's pretty telegenic himself. The only difference between the two is a little bodybuilding."

Westly sought to distinguish himself from Angelides in comparing their plans for erasing the state's approximately $5-billion budget gap. Angelides has advocated raising taxes on wealthy Californians and corporations to increase education funding and close the deficit.

Westly said his preference would be to make new taxes a last resort. Yet he has endorsed an initiative backed by filmmaker Rob Reiner that would raise taxes on wealthy Californians to pay for universal preschool.

"We all have priorities," Westly said. "My priority is public education.... This is my one priority this year where I'm willing to endorse an additional tax increase."

Angelides campaign spokesman Dan Newman called Westly "a man without a plan." The controller, he said, "nowhere has a plan to fully fund education and balance the budget. He says what he won't do, but he won't say what he will do to balance the budget and fund our schools."

Anticipating a possible race against Schwarzenegger, Westly said the governor does not deserve credit for job growth in California -- a product, he said, of national trends. One of the major themes of Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign is that he has helped create jobs and improve California's economy.

"Frankly, the governor has had very little bearing on that and I hope you will hold him accountable should he take credit for that," Westly said.

Westly also said the governor failed to deliver on campaign promises to improve the ethical climate in Sacramento. As a candidate in the 2003 recall, Schwarzenegger said he would strive to purge the Capitol of "special interests" and make state government more responsive to average Californians.

Westly mentioned Schwarzenegger's veto of a bill in 2004 to regulate dietary supplements. Though he did not disclose the details of the arrangement, Schwarzenegger had signed a contract with a fitness magazine publisher that paid him a minimum of $1 million a year to serve as editor. The magazines' revenue comes largely from ads for dietary supplement makers.

Schwarzenegger signed a similar bill last year, after the terms of his contract became public.

"He was receiving an additional million-plus dollars a year from an industry he was apparently helping," Westly said. "That is not right."

Matt David, a Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman, replied in an interview: "It's unfortunate that Steve Westly would recycle tired attacks to pander to the left-wing base.

"Today's PowerPoints and pie charts," David said, "can't conceal the fact that Westly's numbers just don't add up."

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