He became a Democrat and was elected to Congress for eight terms from Monterey. Then President Clinton tapped him to be his budget director — they ended deficit spending — and later chief of staff.
"And then she took a long time coming to a decision. By that time, it was too late for me to raise the money. To be competitive, I'd have had to raise anywhere from $20 million to $40 million. I mean, my God!"
He settled in as director of the Panetta Institute, a think tank at Cal State Monterey Bay.
I asked Panetta, 67, why he didn't run this year. He laughed.
"I can't afford to," he answered. "I'm not independently wealthy. I'm not in the ballpark with Angelides and Westly."
Although he does own a 12-acre walnut ranch in pricey Carmel Valley, Panetta is more in the ballpark with Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. This is another Democrat whose gubernatorial dreams were dashed because he lacked sufficient millions.
Lockyer, an effective attorney general and once a skilled legislative leader, isn't rich and hates to grovel for money. So he's running for the relatively inexpensive job of treasurer.
"This state cannot survive unless we open up the opportunity for more good people to run for office," Panetta says. "You're either independently wealthy or you've got special interests backing you. People are just simply turned off about getting into the process. I honestly believe that some kind of public financing is essential."
And "these damn attack ads," he continues. Potential candidates "are turned off by that. They don't want to see their lives destroyed.
"There are a lot of things that have to change for this state to be governable." For one, he says, there must be more flexibility for elected officials to set spending priorities. Most of the money now is tied up by ballot-box budgeting through initiatives.
"You'd have to go against a lot of special interests and, in many ways, against your party to implement these reforms."
Feinstein has endorsed Angelides.
I may write in Panetta.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.