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Competition Drives `Scrappy' Angelides

Some admire his energy, idealism, passion. Others see a demanding micromanager.

October 20, 2006|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — There are no pretty strokes in Phil Angelides' tennis game. Disarmingly gangly but unremittingly competitive, the Democratic candidate for governor relies on sheer aggression, along with slices and spins, to confound his opponents.

"He's a scrapper," said longtime tennis partner Bill Cody, who was ranked behind Angelides in the Northern California tennis circuit when both were boys. The strokes are not textbook perfect, Cody said, but Angelides "gets the most out of his game that he possibly could."

Angelides' strivings in California politics are forged from a similar mix of inelegant ambition, intense work ethic, sharp elbows and liberal idealism.

He won plaudits and racked up political chits for his well-organized effort as state Democratic Party chairman in 1992, when he helped elect Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to the U.S. Senate. But he squandered much of that goodwill two years later in a brutal primary fight for state treasurer against David Roberti, a well-liked state Senate leader whom Angelides depicted as sympathetic to abortion clinic bombers and complicit in legislative corruption.

Elected state treasurer in 1998 after three losing campaigns for public office, Angelides by most accounts has shown great creativity in leveraging the obscure position's power, particularly through his seat on the boards of the state employee and teacher pension funds. He has focused on increasing public investment in California, encouraging affordable housing and environmental technology and pressing for changes in corporate governance.

"Phil has just an incredible energy and a curious mind," said former state controller and fellow Democrat Kathleen Connell. "He has extraordinary passion and an astute sense of policy. He is a relentless advocate for the changes he thinks are important to California."

But Angelides' tenure is not universally lauded.

A 1999 pension benefit increase for government workers that Angelides supported, for example, was sold to lawmakers with the promise that it would not cost taxpayers anything more for at least a decade. Instead, the state contribution has increased nearly sixfold to $2.7 billion in this fiscal year.

"I think he was asleep at the wheel in looking out for the taxpayers and the citizens of California," said Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, who lost this year's Republican primary to replace Angelides.

Though he has castigated Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for accepting money from special interests, Angelides has been unapologetic about accepting $4.5 million in donations from money managers and others seeking investments from the two public pension funds on whose boards the treasurer sits.

And Angelides has a mixed reputation for his personal style. Although praised as diligent and dedicated, he is known as a micromanager who demands much, often dwells on minutiae and is demanding of subordinates.

Since January, Angelides has shed half a dozen high-level political consultants, several of whom said privately that they were driven away by the candidate's overbearing control. Once, when staffers were choosing a shredder for the office, two sources said, Angelides -- then traveling on the East Coast -- insisted that aides express mail him samples of minced paper to make sure they were sufficiently pulverized.

Angelides' obsession with detail also has led him to improve esoteric parts of the treasurer's office, often with an eye toward larger purposes. To encourage smart growth, Angelides reconfigured a program that assists the construction of low-income housing so that tax credits were first awarded to the projects that did not contribute to sprawl, such as those near public transportation. His predecessor, Republican Matt Fong, had awarded the tax credits through a lottery to avoid favoritism.

A 'Principled' Official

Nathan Brostrom, a former investment banker who worked with Angelides on state borrowing to deal with the energy crisis in 2000, called him "one of the most principled, hard-working, engaged officials" he has met in public office.

"I would say his strength also becomes his weakness: He is very detail oriented, almost obsessed with policy formulation and policy implementation," said Brostrom, now an administrator at UC Berkeley. "He is so interested in it that he gets caught up in it."

On the campaign trail, Angelides acknowledges his nerdy persona. He regularly tells audiences that unlike his opponent's physique, "Mine is natural. It is God-given. There are no steroids."

He has tried to counter his stiff public image by incorporating his three daughters into the campaign. Two are working full time on it, and all have appeared prominently in his television ads.

Angelides' competitiveness, as well as his sense of whimsy, were on display in July at a stop in Merced. Plainly disinclined to show mercy no matter what the circumstances, he beat a 12-year-old boy at air hockey.

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