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Making the most of No. 2

October 16, 2006

IN A STATE FILLED WITH OBSCURE elected official positions, none is more pointless than lieutenant governor. Officially president of the state Senate, he rarely shows up in the chamber and can't even cast a vote except to break a tie. His primary task under the 1879 state Constitution is to be in charge when the governor is out of state -- presumably because it would take too long for the governor to get telegraphed notice of an emergency and return by stagecoach.

Supposedly, people run for lieutenant governor because they see it as a steppingstone to the governor's office. But it rarely works out that way. Gray Davis is only the third lieutenant governor to have been elected to the top job without the governor first dying or resigning. Now two men who previously ran for governor and failed -- Democrat John Garamendi and Republican Tom McClintock -- are running for lieutenant governor. Garamendi is the better choice.

As the state's first elected insurance commissioner, Garamendi was a fearless and capable enforcer of Proposition 103, the initiative that created his office and imposed changes in the way insurance rates are set. As a legislator, he developed a reputation as a problem-solver, getting the most from government in an era of declining tax revenue. As deputy secretary of Interior, he helped coordinate the Clinton administration's environmental policy.

Garamendi should take that same creative and battling spirit and put it to work on public institutions, including the University of California Board of Regents, on which the lieutenant governor sits. His chief failing -- a tendency to engage in political grandstanding -- may help to bring attention to his office.

He is squaring off against McClintock, making for a fascinating study in divergent politics. Both men agree that California ran off the rails sometime in the 1970s; McClintock cites an ill-considered no-growth ethic as the culprit, while Garamendi blames cutbacks in health and education and a shift in the tax burden away from top earners.

Either would provide a provocative point of view in Sacramento, and McClintock might actually make the more interesting lieutenant governor -- as a tight-fisted check on the Democrats who hold sway in the Legislature. But whoever is in the job could become governor in a heartbeat, and McClintock's positions on immigration, same-sex marriage and other social issues betray a cramped vision of the state's future.

Both men are refreshingly blunt and ill-suited for such a low-profile office. Garamendi gets the nod because, if he were to ascend to governor, his policies would be more in step with today's California.


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