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Digging Deep Reveals the Differences Between Angelides, Westly

Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly agree on a lot, but they’re hardly two peas in a pod. They’d make strikingly different governors.

Democratic voters do not face a choice without meaning in Tuesday’s primary election.

It has been commonplace to attribute the unusually high number of undecided voters in the gubernatorial primary to the candidates’ similarities on hot-button issues. And it’s true, they measure up pretty equally on a range of litmus tests.

They both favor abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control, capital punishment and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

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Each advocates protecting the environment and has been endorsed, jointly, by the Sierra Club. You’d never know it, however, by Westly’s TV ads that try to sully Angelides’ conservation record as a housing developer.

And, yes, they’re both running shameless attack ads -- so shameless that Westly even has pulled his negative ads off his website.

But beneath the surface similarities there are deep differences.

Paramount on policy is the chasm between the two on taxes. This cannot be overstated, because the issue goes to the heart of what a government primarily does: tax and spend. Spending for schools, healthcare, law enforcement ....

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Angelides would be a hair-trigger taxer on rich folks -- couples making more than $500,000 a year -- and big corporations. In fact, the candidate told me this week that moving to raise taxes on this well-heeled group -- which he calculates has received $17 billion in “obscene” annual tax breaks from the Bush administration and Sacramento -- would be among his first actions as governor.

He’d need the $5-billion tax hike, Angelides says, to truly balance the state budget without borrowing, fully fund schools under Proposition 98 and finance $930 million in other new projects. These include rolling back university and college fees to the levels they were before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, expanding student Cal Grants and providing healthcare for all poor kids.

By contrast, Westly would raise taxes only as a “last resort.”

“I’m focused on [government] accountability first,” he says. “Angelides is focused on taxes first.”

That doesn’t mean he’d never raise taxes, Westly adds, “but we’ve got to re-earn the public trust. I’m not here to provide typical Sacramento solutions.”

Westly says this election is “about who can best prepare our economy for the 21st century [and] who can improve public education so that our children have a chance to compete.”

But he isn’t convinced more tax money is necessary to pay for it. His emphasis -- as equally populist as soak the rich -- is on making better use of dollars already in the bank and collecting all the money owed by tax cheats.

“Fairy dust,” Angelides says.

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This segues into the distinct differences in style that would characterize each candidate’s governorship.

Angelides, I think, would be more activist, more aggressive in pushing a policy agenda. The man is tenacious.

Westly -- and plenty of other skeptics -- contend that Angelides is dreaming when he goes on about raising taxes, because Republican legislators would block him.

But Angelides disagrees. “I’d use every chit available to the governor’s office,” he says. “I’d work day and night with legislators. A governor does have a significant amount of power in signing and vetoing bills. The power of that office is underrated.”

And Angelides makes the valid point that if he were elected, after campaigning on a platform to raise taxes, “I’d come into office with some capital to get it done.”

“I have a driving dream of where I want to take the state,” he continues. “Leaders are people who wade in and change the direction of where things are going. I want to lead California on a new path to be the best.”

Angelides is not lacking in self-confidence. He’s a policy wonk, quick to offer a solution to almost any problem.

Westly seems more cautious, more deliberative, more likely to seek consensus -- less likely to charge out ahead of the crowd.

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He’s more process-oriented. The first thing he’d do as governor would be to “pull together a conference of education leaders to talk about what we need to do to close the achievement gap,” Westly says.

And he’d rely on his experience as an early executive at EBay, where he made a fortune. There, Westly says, he negotiated crucial deals with AOL and Netscape that allowed EBay to prosper phenomenally. “I’m somebody who can bring people together,” he says.

But he doesn’t seem the type to herd them together, as Angelides would.

Westly, however, has been willing to buck the Democratic party -- advocating an open primary and redistricting reform, and supporting Schwarzenegger’s “million solar roofs” proposal over union opposition.

People who have worked for the treasurer and controller, and left on good terms, paint very dissimilar pictures of the men. Desiring to stay on good terms, they asked to remain anonymous. But Angelides is portrayed as a workaholic and a micro-manager, a malady he’d have to cure to be a successful governor. Westly reportedly was inattentive to homework and basically bored.

Westly is perceived by political junkies to have the best chance of beating Schwarzenegger because he’s positioned as more centrist. But that’s just pre-primary speculation. Whoever is the Democratic nominee will be tagged as a taxer.

Angelides could energize both parties, rallying Democrats and frightening Republicans.

Westly could be the Michael Dukakis of 2006, emphasizing “competence” and curing insomnia.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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