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Bill Lockyer had the right stuff to be governor

Lockyer, California's treasurer, never lost an election in 46 years and he knew how to get things done. But the timing never worked out for him.

June 05, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • State Treasurer Bill Lockyer announced Monday that he'll retire next year from elective office after four decades in Sacramento.
State Treasurer Bill Lockyer announced Monday that he'll retire… (Robert Durell / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Bill Lockyer should have been governor. He would have been good for California — and great for people in my line of work.

The state treasurer — who announced Monday that he'll retire next year from elective office after four decades in Sacramento — has always been a politician who could deal and get things done.

He's also candid and, especially earlier in his career, prone to shoot off his mouth.

"I resent your mindless blather," Lockyer once told a female state senator, a fellow Democrat, while chairing a committee.

But as a loose cannon, he never wounded the public. He only nicked himself. Whatever the personal flaws, they didn't harm constituents.

Lockyer never lost an election in 46 years of running for office, a rare feat. He served 25 years in the Legislature — the last four as Senate leader — then was elected attorney general and treasurer.

Basically he has been a practical policy wonk and master politician who, for the most part, recognized and pursued the best solutions to California's problems.

There never has been a hint of corruption. That may seem like a backhanded compliment, but, after all, we're talking politics.

Lockyer, 72, barred by term limits from running for reelection, had been planning to run for state controller next year. But he concluded that he'd be bored in the job.

"I realized I don't want to do that," he told me. "I need to do something new and challenging rather than just be one of the handful of [state] fiscal managers. Controller's not terribly different than what I'm doing — chief accountant rather than investment officer. It's time to make a break."

He doesn't know what's next, nor what he'll do with the $2.2 million he'd stashed for the controller's race. He can't spend it on himself. It could be used on another political endeavor.

Too bad Lockyer never had a good opportunity to run for governor.

A Gov. Lockyer, I'm certain, never would have looked like a deer in headlights when the energy crisis struck California in 2000, as Gov. Gray Davis did.

A Gov. Lockyer would not have eliminated the car tax without replacing it with another revenue source, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did in 2003, punching a $5-billion annual hole in the state budget.

And, unlike Schwarzenegger, he never would have borrowed $15 billion over several years to pay for short-term daily expenses, thus digging an even deeper deficit.

Also, I'd bet that Lockyer would have finessed a budget-balancing tax increase though the Legislature, rather than — as Gov. Jerry Brown did — hitting up favor-seeking special interests to pay for a successful ballot initiative. Lockyer would have used all his constitutional powers to cajole and coerce the Legislature — a la Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, in the mode of President Lyndon Johnson.

But Lockyer says Brown is "doing a terrific job."

Politics is about timing and it was never right for Lockyer to be elected governor.

In 1998, when he was termed out of the Legislature, Lockyer had never run for statewide office. Davis had held two statewide elective posts and had an easier path to the governor's office.

Instead, Lockyer was elected attorney general and began plotting a gubernatorial race when Davis was expected to be termed out in 2006. But Davis was recalled in 2003 and Schwarzenegger replaced him. Lockyer concluded that he couldn't beat the Terminator in 2006, and aimed for 2010. Meanwhile, he was elected treasurer.

But then Brown jumped into the 2010 race and Lockyer bowed out. "I just don't see how it's possible to beat Jerry in a primary," he told me at the time. "The Brown name is so strong."

Lockyer, nevertheless, has left a large mark in Sacramento. Because of him:

• Consumers no longer have to sit around the house all day waiting for a delivery or repair. Business and utilities must show up within a four-hour window.

• People called to jury duty are excused for the year if they don't get selected for a panel on the first day.

• DNA is regularly used in crime-solving. When Lockyer became attorney general, there was a backlog of 220,000 unused samples.

• California became the first state to implement a program that discovers when felons and the mentally ill possess guns they're not supposed to.

• There's a 500-mile hiking and biking trail around San Francisco and San Pablo bays.

He's proudest of the trail, Lockyer says.

What was his biggest mistake? "Being combative when I didn't need to be," he says.

But his blunt talk usually was well aimed.

Like when he lectured a legislative committee in 2009 to stop passing so many bills and spending so much.

"There's too much junk," he asserted, raising his voice. "I'm sorry, but two-thirds of the bills I see come out of the Assembly, if they never saw the light of day, God bless it.... Just stop it! Just stop it!.... Just say 'No.' "

Lockyer has had a roller-coaster personal life.

As a child, he was molested by a male baby sitter, a fact he disclosed one day on the Senate floor while successfully pushing a bill to assist in the prosecution of pedophiles.

He has been married three times. "I [messed] around," during the first two, he says. "Infidelity."

His third wife, Nadia, 30 years his junior, became a drug addict and had a scandalous affair with a man she met in rehab. Lockyer is trying to reunite with her. They have a 9-year-old son.

"I just adore her," he says. "She's working hard to get well."

Lockyer has worked hard for California and — unlike so many politicians — was usually effective and interesting.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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