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Losing Weight Where It Counts

Breaking election news:

There’s been a startling development in Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s run for state insurance commissioner. My stern lecture to him about the sad state of California politics and his shameless fundraising, as reported in Wednesday’s column, has led to an epiphany on his part. Or so he tells me.

But I’m going to hold on to the news until the end of this column for the sake of an upbeat ending. You’ll be grateful, too, because what comes first is grim indeed.

Raymond Chandler had it wrong and so did Joan Didion. Sure, the Santa Ana winds can make your nerves jump and your skin crawl, but the true season of prickly dread is upon us now, as we inch ever closer to Tuesday’s election.

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California’s Democratic primary for governor, in particular, is an affair so sleazy and vicious it would inspire revolt, except that no one is paying attention.

“I personally have been shocked by the number of people I know who are heavily politically active ... and would not miss an election if they were on their deathbed but are asking themselves, ‘Am I really going to vote?’ ” said Susan Lerner of the California Clean Money Campaign.

This is the election Lerner has always dreamed of. She’s hoping the stench is so bad, it might finally get people to vote for a reform initiative likely to be on the ballot in November.

I hope she’s right, but I can’t help but remember all those other foul-smelling elections that didn’t spark change. Think Gray Davis in 2002; think Arnold and the 2003 recall. All that money spent on ads designed to insult your intelligence.

Have you seen the TV ads by Steve Westly and Phil Angelides?

If you got your hands around their necks, would you be able to stop yourself?

Experts love telling us that the reason we get negative TV advertising is because it works, but they don’t know what they’re talking about, and I’ll rest my case when we see the numbers on Tuesday’s turnout.

I’m three months and six blocks past prickly dread, my friend. I’m so jumpy I’m beginning to wonder if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is as bad as either of these guys.

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Did I just say that?

I can’t believe it myself. Schwarzenegger, who was supposed to represent a revolution, has turned out to be a blowhard for the ages, giving us three years of super-human money-grubbing and unabashed hypocrisy.

But who could love state Controller Westly and state Treasurer Angelides now that they’ve exposed each other as a couple of toadies from the same school as Arnold?

Even from this swamp, Lerner’s plucked a pearl.

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“They’ve invested so heavily in ads accusing each other of taking inappropriate donations, they must believe it’s an issue of importance to the public,” she says.

Her website, www.caclean.org, explains how the public financing proposal would clean up the mess, saving us money in the long run. It wouldn’t make for a perfect system, but take a look at where we are today.

If you’re like a lot of other people, you’re coming up with perfectly reasonable-sounding reasons not to vote Tuesday, even as our troops plant the seeds of democracy and free elections abroad.

The car needs a lube job.

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You can’t afford to miss yoga.

You’d rather get poked in the eye with a stick.

It’s not as if there’s a real grabber on the statewide ballot. Truth be told, Rob Reiner’s preschool initiative was well-intentioned but poorly conceived and maybe too confusing to get anyone to the polls on its own.

And whatever happened to Warren Beatty, who loved to trash Schwarzenegger but would never say whether he was or wasn’t a candidate?

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The prospect of a Beatty-Schwarzenegger battle in November, Dick Tracy versus Conan the Barbarian, would at least have kept Californians awake.

It’s too bad Beatty isn’t running for judge, because we have very little information available to help us make intelligent decisions about the people actually running for the bench. Have you seen a sample ballot? We’re no more qualified to vote for these judges than we are to perform brain surgery, but there we’ll be, standing over the names with a blank stare.

This one sounds familiar. This one’s got nice alliteration. This one’s got the same initials as my third cousin Harold from Dubuque.

Enough already. Can we please switch to a merit selection system, in which nonpartisan legal experts make judicial appointments, as is the case in a majority of states?

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To restore my faith in the democratic process, I buzzed out to UCLA on Thursday after hearing about a political rally for Marcy Winograd, an antiwar activist challenging U.S. Rep. Jane Harman in the 36th Congressional District.

“I want to bring our troops back,” Winograd told two dozen spirited supporters outside an event where Harman was speaking about national security.

I don’t know if a lefty like Winograd, with Cindy Sheehan and Ed Asner behind her, has a chance in a district that covers the spectrum of Democratic politics. But she represents a true alternative to Harman, who supported the war and has taken hits for not always standing up to the Republican agenda.

And now, to restore your faith in the democratic process as well as the power of the press, I return to Cruz Bustamante as promised.

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As I was leaving the Winograd rally at UCLA, Bustamante called regarding my Wednesday column. If you missed it, I had taken him to lunch at Barragan’s Mexican Restaurant in Echo Park, where we discussed his campaign to shed 50 pounds, arguing that insurance premiums will drop if we fight obesity.

Yeah, whatever. Pass me another basket of chips and a margarita while I think about it.

He claimed at Barragan’s that he was down to 233, just five pounds short of his goal, but who in his right mind would take a politician at his word? When lunch was done, and I had tempted Bustamante with everything on the menu, I pulled a bathroom scale out of my backpack.

I think he dropped two pounds from shock alone. But I have witnesses who will put his weight at 240, although he was in a suit and tie.

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And, as I informed Bustamante, he can eat all the nachos he wants. The diet I’d like to see him on is a fundraising diet, since he’d collected $158,000 from the very industry he would regulate if elected insurance commissioner.

When he called Thursday, Bustamante claimed he’d dropped to just under 230 since our lunch and had even hit 228 one day. Nice going, I told him. But I need evidence, and he said he’ll be back in L.A. this week to offer proof.

More important, he said that after reflecting on our conversation, he had decided to give back the $158,000 from the insurance industry.

“We’re cutting the checks right now,” he said.

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I’ll need to see that evidence too. And I can’t know whether Bustamante is doing it for the right reasons or for the publicity -- or because it might boost his chance to win both Tuesday’s primary and a tougher challenge in November.

But as polluted as California’s political system is, this is a hopeful sign. With two days left, you think there’s any chance I can get Angelides and Westly to give back all their campaign donations too?

*

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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