Of Ambition, People Skills and Broken Legs

There could have been a better place to ask John Garamendi about his reputation for excessive ambition and not being a good "people person." But you take interviews where they're given.

We were crunched into the back seat of a medium-size sedan--I in the left corner, the 6-foot-2 Garamendi buckled in the middle, with the remainder of space occupied by his broken right leg. He obviously was in pain. His voice was strained and sweat dripped down his forehead.

He'd just stood on one foot for an hour while delivering a major speech. Now he was headed for a hospital to get the word on his fibula, broken two nights before in a fall from the top of a seven-foot ladder. The insurance commissioner had been leaning on an oak branch, trying to fix short-circuited lights during a barn dance at his 21st annual Basque Barbecue in the Sierra foothills. The branch broke. So he was facing the possibility of surgery and weeks in a hard cast while campaigning for governor on crutches.

And there was this newsperson, asking him about being over-ambitious and arrogant, tags that have dogged his 20-year career. He ran and lost two statewide races before being elected insurance commissioner in 1990. As a senator, he'd attempted to oust then-leader David A. Roberti, an ally, and gotten only his own vote. Although widely respected for intellect, knowledge and energy, Garamendi has few friends in the Capitol.

He's as independent as a hog on ice, as they might say around the Sierra ranches where he grew up. And on this particular day, a story headlined "People Skills May Harm Garamendi" has just been spread across the top of Page 1 in his hometown newspaper, the Sacramento Bee.


"I've never been an inside ballplayer in the Capitol," explained Garamendi, who used to make long drives home every night to be with his large family rather than schmooze in Sacramento. But, of course, that's just part of the story.

Garamendi was raised by perfectionist parents who instilled a strong work ethic; his grandfather was an immigrant Basque sheepherder who inspired the offspring. John strove to excel, becoming an honor student and an all-star lineman for the Cal Bears. He believed what really mattered was what he could prove in class and on the field. Networking wasn't needed; tenacity and talent prevailed. He didn't tolerate fools, slackers or backslappers.

Blessed with brains, brawn and good looks, Garamendi usually succeeded with this attitude. But it doesn't always work in politics, where personality and pliability often matter more than policy.

I mentioned some of these observations and Garamendi seemed to agree, adding: "I'm also not perfect. I know I've made plenty of mistakes. And I've learned from them."

Mistakes, he said, such as initially seeing the Senate as "just a house of old men. It turns out those old men, whatever their shortcomings, also had a great deal of wisdom." And challenging Roberti, he conceded, was a very big mistake.

As for ambition, he said: "Come on, give me a break. I personally like ambition. I expect my employees to be very ambitious, to want to improve themselves."

And that took him to Kathleen Brown, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, whose experience in state government consists of less than 3 1/2 years as treasurer; whose family lineage is the cornerstone of her candidacy.

"Who's ambitious?" Garamendi asked. "I've been 20 years in major public policy. I am prepared to deal with the issues of this state. She's not proved anything other than she could get elected treasurer and is the daughter of one governor and the sister of another."


But the clock is ticking down for the 49-year-old ex-lineman. The primary election is in less than four weeks and the latest polls show him trailing by double digits. Says his campaign manager, Darry Sragow: "I've maintained we would win by grinding out the yards. But I guess we're at a point where we need the long pass."

Garamendi hopes to throw the long pass with some TV commercials starting next week and continuing through the election. He and his wife, Patti, will help buy the ads with family farm money. They're not saying how much, but it'll likely be around $1 million. "The family believes in John," says Patti Garamendi. "We have to help him cross the finish line."

At the hospital, the candidate got good news: no surgery and no hard cast, just a flexible cast and crutches.

As for my questions, Garamendi's response about political ambition being a virtue made utter sense. And the fact he could tolerate a query about personality flaws while throbbing with pain proved he's not all that bad a "people person."

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