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Candidates for governor share stage at Northridge Democratic forum

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa focuses on his reelection campaign while San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown cite their records.

February 23, 2009|Michael Finnegan

Democrats auditioning for governor of California stepped one by one onto a Northridge stage Sunday for an opening scene of the campaign to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There was Gavin Newsom, the hyper-caffeinated mayor of San Francisco, casting his City Hall record as a progressive model for California, if not the world.

There was John Garamendi, a perennial name on statewide ballots, ruminating over Robert Frost poetry that inspires him by the campfire on outings along the Tuolomne River.

There was Jerry Brown, the enigmatic former governor, launching into a frenetic recap of his high points from the '70s.

And there was Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, giving a low-key pitch for his reelection next month without so much as a nod to his potential rivals in the June 2010 primary for governor.

They have more than 16 months left to polish their acts, but at Cal State Northridge on Sunday, leading contenders for the nomination were already campaigning full bore at a gathering of the San Fernando Valley Democratic Party.

It was hardly representative of the whole campaign; each focused more on platitudes and buffing his own accomplishments than on forwarding specific solutions or reality checks on their opponents. Nor was there much talk about their GOP opponents -- at least two of whom will have tens of millions in personal money to make their case at the expense of the Democratic nominee.

Still, Newsom, Garamendi and Villaraigosa each made clear that they approve of the tax increases in the state budget that passed last week. Only Brown, in an interview, declined to say whether he would be open to higher taxes in a budget crunch.

"I don't want to say it, because Republicans use it in TV commercials and they exploit it with $100 million," he said. "Anything you say can be taken out of context."

Newsom, best known for his efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, let loose a blast of breathless superlatives to recount developments in San Francisco on his watch.

"You're going to say, 'this guy's exaggerating, this can't be true,' " Newsom said.

But San Francisco is the only city in the nation with universal healthcare, he said, and it has the nation's highest recycling rate, its "most aggressive solar program" and its "most aggressive local climate action plan." If all goes well, it will become "the epicenter of electric vehicles, not only in the state, but the entire country."

Newsom went on to hail a plan to spin electric power from the San Francisco Bay tides. Imagine, he said, "right below the Golden Gate Bridge, harnessing Mother Nature as she comes in, day in day out."

On top of that, "every single child has access to early childhood education," and "every single sixth-grader in our system is guaranteed a college education," he said.

In suit and tie, Garamendi, the lieutenant governor, cut a more formal figure than the open-collar mayor of San Francisco. His hope, Garamendi joked, is for President Obama to name Schwarzenegger ambassador to Austria, a move that would make Garamendi the incumbent governor before the 2010 election.

Garamendi recalled perusing poetry at a birthday party for a 5-year-old grandchild Saturday at his Central Valley ranch. Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and Robert Service's "The Spell of the Yukon" offer lessons on how California can survive its economic troubles and rebuild, he said.

Condemning budget cuts at state universities, he said: "Governor Schwarzenegger, I'm here to call you out, that you are putting this state on the continued path of decline, and it has got to stop."

Like Newsom, he pledged universal healthcare and rattled off his environmental credentials, namely fights against offshore oil drilling, a liquefied natural gas plant off Oxnard and a road through a San Onofre State Beach.

Brown, the attorney general, opted for a stand-up-comic approach.

"I didn't get the name 'Moonbeam' for nothing," he said, recalling the nickname that his musings about satellites earned him in the '70s.

"I took on the powerful. I challenged the status quo. I wasn't afraid to bring creative ideas so California became the world leader in renewable energy 25 years before it was popular."

As Oakland mayor, Brown told the crowd of 150, he started two charter schools to encourage students to enter college. One was a military school.

"I knew you wouldn't like a military school, so I created an arts school," he told the Democrats. "So I got a little bit of the left, and a little bit of the right."

Though Brown has been running for governor for months, he joked that he would not offer a "laundry list" of answers to California's problems before announcing a formal decision to join the race. For now, he said, he's busy filing lawsuits over abusive home-lending practices, Ponzi schemes and the failure of some employers to pay overtime.

"I'm probably suing some people in this room," he said.

The only contender to avoid any overt appearance of running for governor was Villaraigosa, who faces no major challenger in the mayoral race but who has declined to talk much about running for governor lest his loyalties to Los Angeles be questioned.

"I never take an election for granted," he said.

Villaraigosa stuck to his local campaign platform, saying he has made Los Angeles safer, improved its schools and promoted renewable energy. In words echoed a while later in Newsom's tribute to San Francisco, Villaraigosa called Los Angeles the "cleanest, greenest big city in the United States."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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