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Controller’s Forceful Agenda Fuels Speculation on Run for Governor

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Kathleen Connell is on the move--brisk, forceful and confident. She talks tough about stripping state government of waste and inefficiency and of building a stronger California economy.

And--ask any California political expert--Connell appears to know just what she wants for herself: to become governor of California at the first opportunity.

Now in her second year as state controller, the 48-year-old former Los Angeles financial advisor has begun to stump California on behalf of her proposal to examine the state bureaucracy from top to bottom through a series of performance audits.

The idea is to eliminate waste and duplication, and ultimately to shed government programs that don’t work or that no longer meet a need or demand on the part of the public.

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“I have always been driven by the bottom line because if you don’t appreciate the bottom line, and you don’t service your clients, you’re not going to succeed,” Connell said in a recent speech in Sacramento.

“I sought elective office because I think it’s time for someone with a business background to come into office and to really focus on an economic agenda for California,” she said.

At the same time, Connell has become the center of speculation as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1998. And she is already the subject of insider talk about an abrasive personality, excessive ambition and a willingness to embarrass fellow Democrats for her own political gain.

Connell is asked about running for governor all the time, said Carol Thorp, her former communications director.

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Her response to such questions? “Nothing,” Thorp said the day of Connell’s speech. “She wants to be the best controller she can be, and that [her political future] will take care of itself.”

Connell’s political allies talk about a Connell race for governor as if it is virtually ordained.

“She is really a new thinker,” Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) said recently while introducing Connell before the controller’s luncheon speech to the annual California conference of the Democratic Leadership Council in Sacramento.

“She is the kind of person who can really lead us into a new century,” Alpert said.

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Connell’s political prospects draw starkly differing observations from some veteran California Democratic political insiders.

“She’s positioning herself perfectly,” said one consultant who has worked in gubernatorial campaigns.

“I don’t see anybody who’s very enthusiastic about either one of them,” said another, referring to Connell, a centrist “new Democrat,” and the other most likely Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.

And a Davis associate--who, like the other sources, asked not to be quoted by name--scoffed at Connell’s apparent ambitions.

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“If she thinks she can take a low-level state office and parlay it into a credible campaign for governor in four years, she’s smoking something,” the Davis ally said. “She has a long way to go to prove that any of that is sustainable as a political strategy.”

All concede that Connell has a number of political assets. She is a fresh face and is not encumbered by years of political baggage.

In fact, she was registered to vote as an independent until a year before her first bid for elective office, in the controller’s campaign in 1994. Connell then re-registered as a Democrat.

She had been the owner and president of a Los Angeles-based company that counseled local governments on financing matters and served as Los Angeles city housing director under former Mayor Tom Bradley from 1977 to 1983.

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Politically, Connell was virtually unknown statewide when she entered the race. But she easily defeated two others in the June 1994 Democratic primary.

Former Assemblyman Tom McClintock, her GOP foe in the fall election, was not considered a political heavyweight either. Even so, the GOP sweep was almost strong enough to carry him into office. Connell won by just 187,734 votes out of nearly 8 million cast.

One of Connell’s assets is the ability to take an old issue--cutting waste and inefficiency in government--and articulate it in a fresh and interesting manner.

If you talk to people about having faith in their government, she said in her Sacramento speech, they laugh.

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“They view California government as not real,” she added. “They view California government as wasting their hard-earned tax dollars, and they believe that the bureaucracy . . . should be eliminated.”

Connell has labeled her performance audit plan “Get-Real California.”

Connell tries to cast herself as nonpartisan, and even nonpolitical, in her quest.

She has a different perspective on government because she is the first state controller “who ever met a payroll,” she boasts. “And that makes a difference.”

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“I am going to struggle to maintain a nonpolitical--a non-politician’s--perspective all four years in office,” she said.

Connell cuts a striking figure physically. She stands a trim, posture-perfect 5-foot-9 and has bright red hair. As she talks about California’s future, she often alludes to her two sons, ages 4 and 5, and the sort of legacy this generation of Californians should leave for them.

In delivering a speech, she talks with the determination and seeming authority of a CEO addressing a company sales team.

“My California plan delivers,” she said.

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But Connell also has political liabilities.

After a year in office, she still is a stranger to most California voters. A Field Poll conducted in December found that 62% of those surveyed did not know enough about Connell to form an opinion about her.

Among those who did, however, 30% viewed her favorably and only 8% unfavorably. Typically, a political figure’s negative ratings drift upward as he or she becomes better known and is more closely examined by the media or political opponents.

In the same poll, Davis enjoyed a 45% favorable rating to 18% unfavorable and 37% with no opinion. His favorable rating was higher than any other California political figure except U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also a Democrat, at 48%. Feinstein’s unfavorable rating was 43%.

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The rap on Connell by her critics is that she comes across as unemotional and lacking compassion, that she is difficult to work for, and that she is seen as a political grandstander--at times at the expense of fellow Democrats.

“She stiffed us,” said the Gray Davis associate, recalling how she ordered a fiscal audit of the operation of the controller’s office under her predecessor for eight years: Gray Davis.

Connell said the audit revealed waste and legally questionable actions under Davis that may have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. The Davis associate said the allegations were “trumped-up” and designed to undercut a potential political rival.

To the Davis camp, and many political observers, the audit was the first shot of a future Connell gubernatorial campaign to challenge Davis for the Democratic nomination in 1998.

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State law gives the controller authority to make fiscal audits to determine if state money is being spent properly. But she needs legislation to authorize performance audits, which assess the value of state programs and seek to determine if they fulfill the purposes for which they were created.

Legislation to do that has passed the Senate, but stalled in the Assembly in part because of opposition by the Wilson administration. Republicans are not likely to support studies that could wind up embarrassing the GOP, which has administered state government for the past 14 years.

There also has been controversy over Connell’s highly publicized efforts to do away with the appointment of state inheritance tax appraisers by her office--a system she said is “tainted” by political cronyism. Some appraisers accused Connell of rigging reappointment exams to increase their chances of failing.

Connell replied that she did not expect any endorsements from probate referees who had failed the test.

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Still, Connell has plenty of time to become better known to voters and, more importantly, to potential campaign contributors. And there is little evidence that voters care much about turnover on her staff or how she treats fellow Democrats.

A major question regarding Connell is whether she can succeed at the big-league fund-raising that is required to mount a campaign for governor, as much as $20 million. About two-thirds of the money she spent winning the controller’s office, about $3 million in all, was in the form of loans to the campaign by Connell and her businessman husband.

Connell’s political committee collected more than $300,000 in contributions during 1995 and ended the year with $250,000 cash on hand. Davis had a balance of just over $1 million, an aide said.

Both Davis and Connell have messages and programs that appeal to the California business community. They would compete for campaign dollars from that source.

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