Garamendi: The 18 Hours That Put Him in Race for Controller

Times Staff Writer

It didn’t take long for Sen. John Garamendi to decide he wanted to run for state controller.

The one-time Democratic candidate for governor was on the phone, lining up financial support minutes after reading in the morning newspaper March 6 that incumbent Controller Ken Cory would not run for reelection in 1986.

His reaction was, “Thank you, Ken Cory!”

“I got up and read it and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ ” recalled Garamendi, 41, a handsome former college football star and wealthy part-time rancher-legislator from the Sacramento River community of Walnut Grove. “Eighteen hours of phone calls later, we figured we could put together over $1 million without much trouble. I was in the race.”


The swiftness of the decision tells a lot about Garamendi. Indeed, anyone who knows him might wonder what took him so long to make up his mind to run. Even though he was pushed by an impending filing deadline and the lateness of Cory’s surprise announcement, the speed of the decision was characteristic of the way Garamendi has made other dramatic--sometimes precipitous--moves over his 12-year legislative career.

Some moves worked; others got him in trouble.

In the Senate, where nearly every member believes that the state would operate much better if only he or she were running the show, Garamendi’s pursuit of power has made him stand out, beginning from the time he first came to the Legislature.

He was elected to the Assembly at the age of 29, making him at the time the youngest member of the lower house.


Two years later, he gave up his seat to run for the Senate. It was a risky move that threw him into a race against a well-known Sacramento television personality, but it paid off and he won easily.

Participated in Coup

Once in the Senate, it was not too long before he helped organize a coup that overthrew fellow Democratic Sen. James R. Mills of San Diego as president pro tem. As a result, he was installed as majority leader, the No. 2 job in the Senate Democratic hierarchy.

Two years later, he ran for governor in a long-shot Democratic primary race against Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.


This time he lost badly, 61.1% to 25.2%.

The defeat seemed to start things going in the wrong direction for Garamendi.

Other Democrats looked on critically as he almost immediately began laying plans for another statewide race. Dissatisfaction led Democrats to replace Garamendi as majority leader in late 1984. Democrats complained that he was sacrificing party leadership responsibilities, such as raising money for Senate Democratic candidates, while he pursued personal ambitions.

Then, earlier this year, Garamendi made a futile effort to dislodge Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) as president pro tem of the Senate and wound up losing even more prestige. The one-time power in the Senate didn’t get a single vote of support in his attempted coup.


Roberti retaliated by taking away Garamendi’s influential budget committee assignment, some staff members and extra office space that Garamendi had managed to hang onto when he lost his majority leader’s job.

Roberti, a former legislative ally, called Garamendi his own worst enemy. “His ambition keeps getting in the way of his pragmatic judgment,” Roberti said.

The setbacks represented a steep fall for Garamendi, who only last summer was regarded as a potentially strong challenger to Bradley for this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and who privately was feared by strategists for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

When he backed out of his planned run against Bradley, Garamendi said he thought he would have other opportunities. The controller’s race is it.


May Be a Springboard

Asked whether the controller’s post constituted a springboard from which to run for governor again someday, Garamendi said he has focused his attention only on winning the controller’s office. “I see this as a job in and of itself and not as a stepping stone,” he insisted.

In the Democratic primary for controller, Garamendi faces two tough opponents in Assemblymen Gray Davis of Los Angeles and Alister McAlister of Fremont.

Davis, who served for seven years as chief of staff to Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., already has raised $1.1 million in campaign contributions.


Garamendi, while insisting that he can raise $1 million, has only $86,000 in the bank. He hopes to get the balance of what he will need from a statewide network of supporters he has held together since his 1982 gubernatorial race.

His backers tend to be the same type of so-called “new-ideas” Democrats who supported the presidential campaign of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in 1984. Garamendi was an active Hart supporter.

Unlike Davis and McAlister, who must give up their seats, Garamendi’s state Senate term does not expire for two years. If he loses the controller’s race, he returns to the Senate.

Win or lose, Garamendi said in an interview that uncertainties, victories and failures are all part of the political process. He compared the ups and downs of politics to a surfer riding a wave.


“You are on top of the wave, and then you are in the trough of the wave, but it’s always moving, always changing. One minute you’re down, the next you’re up,” he said.

Reared on a cattle ranch in the Sierra foothills of Calaveras County, in the California Gold Rush country, Garamendi was a star football player at the University of California, Berkeley, honored as an All-Pacific Coast offensive guard and academic All-American. From college, he joined the Peace Corps, serving in Ethiopia with his wife, Patti, a college sweetheart. Later, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University, thinking then that he would make a career in international finance.

Instead, Garamendi caught the political bug.

What drives him to seek higher office, he said, is a desire to wrestle with the big issues of the day, but on a bigger stage, in a job where he can exert more power and influence.


The controller, in addition to serving as the state’s chief accountant and the person who signs State of California checks, sits on key pension boards, the state Lands Commission, Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization. That gives whoever holds the post major power over investment and tax policy, as well as the environmental matters that come before the Lands Commission.

What frustrates him, just as it did four years ago when he ran against Bradley, is the knowledge that as a Northern California legislator, one of his biggest problems is getting better known in heavily populated Southern California, where most of the state’s voters live.

Root of Problems

That is also the root of some of his problems with Senate colleagues.


Reflecting his Northern California roots, Garamendi made a big issue of his opposition to the expansion of the State Water Project in his campaign for governor. His outspoken objection to construction of the Peripheral Canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which voters rejected, did not sit well with some Southern California legislators, who wanted him to give up his Democratic leadership post right then.

Over the years, fellow legislators have come to develop mixed views of Garamendi.

Roberti calls him “very, very bright,” and colleagues admire his ability to write legislation on some of the most difficult issues facing California, such as bills to reform the massive state health and welfare system. He was a chief Democratic budget negotiator, with a reputation for having done his homework.

However, Garamendi also has built a reputation for biting sarcasm and moodiness mixed with self-righteousness. He is an Eagle Scout, for instance, and happily calls attention to it.


Garamendi shrugs off the criticism from his colleagues. “You expect a certain amount of it. I am not one to sit and let the world go by. I take an active role in what I do and sometimes that rubs people the wrong way,” he said.