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Angelides Pledges `All-Out Attack on Asthma'

Campaigning in the Central Valley, the Democrat vows to fight the air pollution that has led to high rates of the disease.

July 28, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

As polls showed tepid support for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, even among his own party's rank and file, the state treasurer Thursday stumped through the Central Valley, highlighting issues of special importance to the region's residents: air pollution and childhood asthma.

Angelides pledged to cut emergency room visits and hospitalizations caused by the respiratory illness in half by toughening air quality standards, expanding healthcare coverage to all the state's children as well as increasing state spending on asthma research and prevention efforts and other measures.

"I am going to wage an all-out attack on asthma," Angelides told a gathering at a town hall meeting at UC Merced's Center for Educational Partnership in Fresno. He offered only limited details about the cost of financing such an effort.

He also criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over concern in the Central Valley about healthcare, jobs and schools.

"This is the ripest territory for a Democratic nominee," Angelides said at a medical clinic in Stockton. "What's the governor done for the valley? Nothing."

The swing through Fresno, Merced, Atwater, Modesto and Stockton came at a time when new polls showed Angelides trailing Schwarzenegger by as much as 13 percentage points among likely voters.

Even among Democrats, support for Angelides was lukewarm, with less than two-thirds supporting him in two independent surveys.

The Central Valley, a more conservative region than the Bay Area or greater Los Angeles, will prove a particular challenge for Angelides. In the June primary, the region's centrist Democrats overwhelmingly supported Angelides' opponent, the more moderate state Controller Steve Westly.

"The valley is a very conservative place," said Susan Walsh, vice president of the Merced chapter of the League of Women Voters. "But if he talks about the issues important to us, such as asthma and air pollution, we'll listen."

The voters in the valley are particularly concerned about its air because the region is among the most polluted places in the nation, leading to high rates of asthma. In the Fresno area alone, one in six children has asthma, triple the national average.

In response to Angelides' visit, Schwarzenegger campaign aides raised questions about the treasurer's commitment to solving the valley's problems, working in a gibe at Angelides' proposals for targeted tax hikes.

"Either he's going to have to raise taxes by a lot more than he's said or he's making empty promises," Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman Matt David said. "In stark contrast, the governor has a strong record on healthcare and environmental issues ... which don't ask hard-working Californians to pay higher taxes."

Steve Haze, chairman of Fresno County's Democratic Party, said he felt confident that once local Democrats became more familiar with Angelides, they will flock to him in November.

"It's a no-brainer," Haze said. "I've seen Schwarzenegger come through, and he's got star power. With Phil Angelides, I think he's much more personable. He connects with people."

The most poignant moment of the day came when a 9-year-old boy spoke about his asthma. Kody Work said he has had the disease since he was 5 and has been hospitalized twice.

"I wish the air quality was better," he said.

Angelides replied, "I can't promise you that I can solve every problem. I can't promise you that I can cure what you struggle with. I can promise you that I am going to try as hard as I can to protect you and make it easier for you to breathe and clean the air."

As he spent his second straight day in the Central Valley, Angelides met up with his father at the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, where they toured a field full of military aircraft, including a B-29.

Angelides' father, Jerry, 83, navigated a B-29 in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

In Modesto, Angelides echoed Haze's confidence about his chances in November.

"Every Californian knows who Arnold Schwarzenegger is, and despite that fact, they are not ready to send him back for another four years because they have grave doubts," he said. "They haven't made a judgment on me yet.... People in California are anxious to learn who I am and where I'll take this state."

He said that between Westly and Schwarzenegger, about $35 million has been spent this year on negative ads against him. He has aired far fewer ads; from the June primary until last week, when the California Democratic Party began airing ads on his behalf, voters were only hearing from Schwarzenegger.

The paucity of information about Angelides struck Democrats like Frank Lopez, a 28-year-old Modesto city firefighter whose station was one of the Democratic candidate's stops Thursday.

Lopez said he would vote for Angelides in November because "we can't have someone like our current governor, who is going after our pensions; that's an attack on our families." But Lopez said he knew little about the Democrat.

Neil Hudson, president of the Central Valley Democrat Club, said that "Schwarzenegger is appealing more to moderate Democrats, and we have a lot of moderate Democrats in the valley. It's going to be a tough race for Phil in this valley."

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