The race for state controller pits a rare Latino Republican officeholder against a Democratic incumbent who has stirred controversy over subjects ranging from her tough audits of state agencies to her campaign fund-raising techniques.
Ruben Barrales, the boyish-looking Republican challenger and county supervisor from Northern California, is conducting his first campaign for statewide office as an undisputed underdog in the race against Controller Kathleen Connell.
Connell led Barrales in a Times poll this month, 40% to 27% among likely voters. In the poll, Barrales lagged further behind his opponent than any other statewide candidate running in a partisan race, although he had narrowed the gap compared to earlier surveys.
Connell has all but ignored Barrales, who says he can make his home-grown fiscal conservatism work at the state level.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Barrales, 36, said he would bring to the controller's job a new emphasis on "free enterprise and small business," as well as a solid record as a San Mateo County supervisor in helping reduce crime, improving schools and holding public debt in check.
To which Connell, 51, replies, "I don't see a need for a campaign" aimed at her opponent. A proven record as a savvy fiscal manager, using skills honed in the private sector, she said, makes her the right candidate for reelection.
The controller functions as the state's chief check-writer and bookkeeper and sits on numerous boards and commissions. Seekers of the office, often hoping to use it as a launch pad to higher elective positions, invariably read more into the controller's responsibilities, and Connell and Barrales are no exceptions.
"I never did see the job as just sitting there and counting the money," Connell said. She claims she has saved taxpayers $1.2 billion by rooting out waste in state bureaucracies. Another achievement, she said, was winning improved benefits for retired teachers by seeing to it that their retirement administrators made better investments.
But she has drawn fire wherever she has sought reform, whether because of the 154 upper-level staff positions she eliminated in her agency soon after winning the post four years ago, or the bruising performance audits she conducted of several state agencies.
Connell makes no apologies.
"Wherever I've had influence and control, we've demanded those kinds of audits," she said.
Friction, she said, is to be expected when she launches probes into the Republican administration of Gov. Pete Wilson, who has sought with some success to curtail her ability to investigate his agencies.
Connell has sent her auditors to look for possible fraud and waste in the state lottery administration, the Medi-Cal program, the Department of Corrections and the probate referee system. Drawing flak at every turn, Connell said improvements made at her suggestion in those and other agencies account for the billion-dollar savings she has brought about.
Fights with the Legislature, including members of her own party, broke out a year ago over a remark emanating from her office that lawmakers weren't accomplishing much for the generous pay they received.
Since then, the wounds Connell inflicted on Democratic allies have seemingly healed. Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) characterized Connell's jab at legislators "serious but not lasting."
Said Connell after the dust settled: "I think we are learning how the process works in Sacramento."
Elsewhere, Connell's feuds within the public service cocoon continue unabated.
Notable among them was the eruption over an attempt by the state employee retirement board to stop her, as a board member, from accepting political contributions from businesses and individuals seeking contracts with the board.
Connell sued, arguing that the board was denying her a fundamental right and charging that the ban was aimed solely at her.
A Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled in Connell's favor, saying the board had exceeded its authority.
Connell has accepted more than $270,000 from contributors bidding for business with the state employee and teacher retirement agencies. She maintains that at no time did she take part in decisions that benefited those interests.
Connell has received a total of $2.2 million in contributions since 1995.
Barrales has called the court ruling that allowed the contributions to resume "outrageous," noting that it was Connell who had earlier demanded that the board discipline itself by reining in expensive travel by many on the 13-member retirement panel.
That's "hypocritical," said Barrales' campaign consultant, Kevin Spillane. When the board tried to place restrictions on her, he said, "she went to court."
Barrales has avoided taking contributions from commercial interests connected to the retirement board, having returned $2,500 in such funds that came to him unsolicited, said his campaign manager, Brian McAndrews.
Fred Register, Connell's campaign manager, said all contributions are important to Connell these days because of her separation from her developer husband, Bob Levenstein, whose wealth was a major factor in her successful 1994 campaign.
Connell keeps the details to herself, said Register, but "her husband was wealthier . . . and the fact they are separated probably means she has less of her own resources" to use in campaigns.
As to what campaigns those might be, Connell has refused to discuss her ambitions. She contemplated a run for governor this year, but backed out early from the crowded Democratic field in the June primary, won by Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.
For his part, Barrales argues that, if he were to replace Connell as controller, his presence would tip the balance to Republican majorities on the state's two taxing authorities, the Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization, which both include the controller as a member.
McAndrews, Barrales' campaign manager, concedes that he is managing a "long-shot" candidate, but "we've seen some issues break our way. Voters disagree that Connell should take contributions from those doing business with [the retirement board]."
Barrales has used his Latino heritage in his campaign, spending some of his limited funds on ads in Spanish-language television markets. He has appeared frequently with GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren before Latino audiences. He urges Latinos to rethink their widespread allegiance to the Democratic Party.
But that message, admits McAndrews, is often a hard sell.
"We know we have many Democratic supporters who are Latino," he said, but they tend to give Barrales this mixed message: "I don't know why you're Republican, but I trust you."
Five minor-party controller's candidates also are on the ballot:
* Alfred L. Burgess of the American Independent Party, owner of a truck repair business in Colton.
* Pamela J. Pescosolido of the Libertarian Party, an Exeter resident who owns an art supply store and gallery.
* Iris Adam of the Natural Law Party, a department manager at UC Irvine.
* C.T. Weber of the Peace and Freedom Party, a union official from San Diego.
* Denise L. Jackson of the Reform Party, a systems analyst in Fullerton.
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Connell has served one four-year term. Her tenure has been stormy at times because of her aggressive style, and she has received a mixture of praise for her accomplishments and criticism over fund-raising and other controversies. She is ahead in the polls.
* Born: June 30, 1947
* Residence: Los Angeles.
* Education: High school in Colorado, Bachelor's degree in political science, Master's in urban planning, University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D. from UCLA in urban planning and economics; Hastings College, Nebraska.
* Career highlights: Director of planning for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley; vice president, Chemical Bank, New York; owner of investment banking firm, Los Angeles; was first director of the Center for Finance and Real Estate at UCLA; member of business school faculty at UCLA and UC Berkeley.
* Quote: I didn't take this job just to count the money.
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Barrales, a Latino Republican and a San Mateo County supervisor, is waging a long-shot campaign to become the next state controller. Barrales pledges to emphasize fiscal conservatism and the needs of small business, and to use the position to fight for better public schools.
* Born: April 14, 1962.
* Residence: Redwood City.
* Education: Graduated from Serra High School near his home in Redwood City. Bachelor's degree in business and public administration from UC Riverside.
* Career highlights: Ran family construction business; elected to San Mateo County Board of Supervisors 1992; helped form one of the state's first charter schools at Garfield Elementary School in Redwood City; won unopposed the Republican nomination for state controller.
* Quote: I'd be a watchdog to ensure funding for our public schools.