Los Angeles Times Interview / The Governor's Race : John Garamendi : A Central-Casting Candidate Facing an Uphill Battle

Cathleen Decker is a political writer for The Times

In the dog days of the campaign for governor, the candidate sitting down to answer questions in the buzzing lobby of a downtown Los Angeles hotel is hurting, literally and politically. Several days before, Insurance Commission er John Garamendi was fixing lights hung in a tree at his Northern California ranch when a branch broke. In the fall, Garamendi broke the smaller bone in his lower right leg, and the resulting ache causes a visible wince.

More important to his long-term prospects, Garamendi is still running behind state Treasurer Kathleen Brown in their bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, and that has left him in a painful uphill struggle to persuade Californians that he would be the best to carry the party's standard this fall against incumbent Pete Wilson.

Garamendi has long been known as an iconoclast in the clubby world of Sacramento; he proudly considers himself an outsider and loner, a man who spurned the capital's nightly rounds of fund raisers and lobbyist parties. But he is also a man with a streak of righteous ambition that has often rubbed his colleagues the wrong way--and the pay-back has come in this race as Brown has been crowned the Establishment candidate.

In any other political year perhaps, Garamendi would be a central-casting vision of a candidate for governor. A rangy, handsome man, he moved from college stardom on the UC Berkeley football team to an idealist's job with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the 1960s. He came home with his wife, Patricia, and started a family and, soon after, a political career. After a short time in the Assembly, he moved up to the state Senate. Not satisfied there, he sought the governorship in 1982 and the state controller's slot in 1986. Both tries were unsuccessful, and he remained in the Senate until 1990, when he finally won statewide office as California's first-elected insurance commissioner.

Though he likes to present himself as simple--"I mean what I say and I say what I mean," he frequently boasts--Garamendi is complex, and all sides of his personality were on display. Capable of detailing the minutia of governance, he also reflected his vision of California. The product of a rich ranching family, a man for whom almost everything, save statewide campaigns, has gone right, Garamendi is, by turns, engaging, caustic, scornful and droll. Most of all, he seems increasingly fed up with the Democratic front-runner, Brown.

Question: You've been in Sacramento as a legislator or government official for roughly 20 years. You've run for statewide office three times. Yet, you are positioning yourself as the outsider. Do people see you as someone who is part of the system?

Answer: Well, I don't think the answer is known. But what is known is that I am the outsider. The years that I was in the Legislature, I never became one of the good old boys. When my work was done, I didn't go down to the bars, or schmooze with the lobbyists. I went home, raised a family--been doing it for 20 years--and in the process never became an insider. I've also been very impatient with the pace of change in the Legislature and pushed the envelope of change to the point where it upset many of my colleagues. But that's just the way it is.

Q: Indeed, you became known as somewhat of an ambitious loner who wasn't part of the club. Is that a detriment now when you've come to run for governor?

A: We'll find out. I don't think it's ambitious after 20 years to run for governor . . . . I would suggest that Kathleen Brown, after 3 1/2 years in government, is the ambitious one.

Q: As you alluded to, you're up against a woman who has 3 1/2 years of state elective experience, yet millions of dollars in the bank and sort of media cache--

A: Who told the New York Times that if her name wasn't Brown, she wouldn't be running for governor.

Q: Do you resent that it's come to this state of affairs in the governor's race?

A: It's not a matter of resentment. Californians, I believe, will understand on Election Day that this is not a job that you inherit. This is a job you have to work for and earn. This is the most important job in this state for the future well-being of our children and ourselves, our economy and our environment. And that simply saying that your father was governor, your brother was governor and, therefore, I should be governor is not sufficient.

Q: What do you think of her as a person, as a candidate, as a potential governor?

A: (Pauses) You have another question?

Q: Why is that particularly touchy? I don't understand.

A: It's not for me to evaluate Kathleen Brown. It's for the voters to evaluate the fact that, after 3 1/2 years in government, she's running for governor. And, in fact, she began running for governor the day she was elected treasurer. What has she done? What has she accomplished? What has prepared her to govern 32 million people? What are her life experiences? What is her knowledge?

Those are questions that I believe voters will be asking as they go to the voting booth, and I think that in each of those questions, they'll be comparing my experience and me in every one of those questions with Kathleen Brown. And I'll benefit from that comparison.

Q: You have concentrated much time, often to the consternation of your campaign manager, on workdays--working across California with ordinary Californians. Could some of that time have been better spent raising the kind of money that you might need in the crunch of the last couple of weeks of the campaign?

A: Of course! Of course this campaign would be better off if I sat in a room and dialed for dollars, if I indulged in the normal game of politics, of raising bucks and promising my life and promising the future of California to some interest group . . . .

There's something insidiously wrong with the campaign processes in California, when you and every other press person in this state says my campaign is dead in the water because I don't have money. Never mind that I may have a great idea. Never mind that I or somebody else might be a great leader. But that fact that we don't have money says we're not qualified to be governor of California?

Q: Let's talk about some issues. The state budget is the primary responsibility of the governor, and we're looking this year at a probable $5-billion deficit unless the federal government comes up with more money than is expected for the payment of immigration services. There has not been much talk of it in specific terms. Why is that?

A: Because--I'll give you the answer and then I'll tell you what could be done. The answer is that there is nothing any of us could do about this year's budget except for Pete Wilson. And the issues that we can do something about go beyond the budget. Now the next question normally asked of me, at this point, is what would you do? Since you want to be governor, what would you do?

Somehow, if I became governor today . . . . I would call for major reform, immediately, of several fundamental systems in the state of California. The Legislature would be asked to work overtime between now and July 1 to do the following: Institute in California a universal health-care system so we can contain the cost of health care. If you don't contain the cost of health care, the California state budget, the L.A. County budget, the Orange County budget, San Francisco and Alameda budgets, Fresno budget and San Diego County budgets are in the tank. Cannot deal with them now or in the long term.

. . . Secondly, we would immediately begin construction of boot camps, taking nonviolent offenders out of the prison system into the boot-camp system. And I'd expect those boot camps to be up and operating by Sept. 1 of this year. And we would begin to move people from the expensive prison environment into a working environment and disciplined environment of a boot camp, which is about half as expensive, so that we can save big-time bucks in the prison system.

Q: Any estimate as to what proportion of the prison system could be accommodated?

A: A whole lot more than Wilson presently has--which is zero. And they wouldn't be fancy. And if the Inmate Bill of Rights wasn't repealed on the day I take office, it would be repealed the next day. So that we can get about the business of doing those things.

Thirdly, I'd have the Legislature create a 24-hour care system that would be integrated into the health-care system so that I could save $5.5 billion in worker's comp and auto insurance . . . .

We would move that money into the vitally needed programs of California. Specifically education--$1 billion to hire 20,000 teachers. Another billion dollars into policing, to hire 20,000 police. Now, the remaining money? I would ask the people of California: Do you want to build a modern transportation system? If so, let's take a billion, maybe $2 billion of the remaining $3.5 billion in savings, and we'll build a massive transportation system here in the state of California . . . .

Q: Of that $5.5 billion, a lot would be private savings--people not having to pay their auto insurance or into worker's comp. How would you get that money out of their hands? Are you essentially talking about a tax increase?

A: Wouldn't you love to write that.

Q: It has to go out of one pocket before it goes into the other, doesn't it?

A: There are a lot of different ways to bring that money into those programs that need it. We would explore that with the Legislature. We would put the issue to Californians: Would you rather pay the insurance company or would you rather pay the school? Would you rather have the money for police or do you want to send the money to State Farm?--your choice. Which way do you want to go here? . . . Let us understand that the present workers' compensation system and the auto-insurance system is a tax. It is a quasi-tax. It is mandated by the government that people buy this product. If that isn't a tax, I don't know what is.

Q: Let's move on to crime. That's also much discussed in this race. The perception is that Democrats have taken on what seemed the coloration of Republicans on this issue, coming on harder than in the past.

A: I have always been tough on crime. I have a 20-year record of having voted for and supported and advocated tough-on-crime measures. This is not a new position for me suitable for this campaign. It is rather a long-held conviction that I've had about how to deal with crime in this society. And I've always seen this issue as a constellation of problems. Punishment, to be sure, and therefore "three strikes and you're out" for violent felons, absolutely. The death penalty--I believe in it and support it. Kathleen Brown does not believe in it--major policy difference. What kind of judges will she appoint? What kind of bills will she sign or veto?

Q: You did, some years back, support the Inmate Bill of Rights.

A: 1975--before Rose Bird, Jerry Brown's judge, expanded it to the point of being ridiculous.

Q: You mentioned three strikes. Will you vote for the three-strikes initiative that's on the ballot in November?

A: No.

Q: You favor a move that would be more restrictive in terms of the types of crimes--

A: I said very clearly, for violent felons "three strikes and you're out." You are locked away, you are out of here, George, goodby. We'll see you in a coffin the day you leave jail.

Q: S o , to be explicit, your problem with the current three-strikes legislation is?

A: Badly written . . . . In the legislation today, there are felonies that are not violent at all that could be included. That's a problem.

Q: What do you make of the state now? What's the state of the state?

A: The state's at a crossroads. There is wonderful, beautiful potential in California to be the leading economy in the world. We are creating a fabulous mix of cultures here with great excitement in art and science and music.

There is enormous energy with the people of California, there is a passionate determination with the families of California to survive and prosper. There is a great spirit of entrepreneurial activity.

At the same time, as we stand at that crossroads, there is awesome energy to destroy. There is the lack of trust in the institutions of the state, both public and private, that denies us the ability to use those institutions as tools in our progress. And there is an emotion--it's a, I can't find the word--in any case, there's an impatience in Californians that all too often turns to distrust and violence, that can, and we could--we will take one or the other of these two paths.

The job of the governor of the state of California is to cause Californians to take the positive path--and we can. And if we do, this is going to be a fabulous place.*

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