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Brown easily wins attorney general’s race

Times Staff Writer

Despite a big win for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democrats swept to victory or forged ahead early today in races for most statewide offices, led by the return of Jerry Brown to the state capital.

Brown, California’s unorthodox ex-governor turned urban mayor, easily topped Republican state Sen. Chuck Poochigian of Fresno in the race for attorney general, while Bill Lockyer scored a big victory in the contest for state treasurer.

Schwarzenegger’s coattails failed to pay off big, with Steve Poizner the only Republican to score a quick and decisive victory, crushing Cruz Bustamante for insurance commissioner.

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Meanwhile, John Chiang pulled away from Republican Tony Strickland for controller, Democrat John Garamendi forged ahead of Tom McClintock in the race for lieutenant governor and Debra Bowen edged in front of the GOP’s Bruce McPherson in the count for secretary of state.

Outside the race for governor and a few high-profile ballot measures, Brown’s bid to become attorney general created the season’s biggest buzz.

The Democrat -- once derided as “Gov. Moonbeam” -- waxed nostalgic at an election night party in San Francisco about assuming a job once held by his father, Pat Brown, a former California attorney general and governor.

“It was exactly 56 years ago tonight that my father won his first race for attorney general,” Brown, 68, said before hefting a framed poster from his father’s first election onto the stage. “I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps.”

Poochigian faced an uphill slog from the first day against a Democratic opponent with advantages in money, name identification and media attention cultivated over an episodic political career featuring two terms as governor and three failed presidential bids.

During eight years as Oakland mayor, Brown tried to refashion his image as a more pragmatic politician intent on fighting criminals and curbing urban blight.

But the famously collegial Poochigian, 57, proved reliably feisty, hitting Brown hard for Oakland’s skyrocketing murder rate and a past littered with Moonbeam moments during his long-ago stint in Sacramento and lefty pronouncements while he was a talk radio host in the 1990s.

More recently, Poochigian pounced on Brown’s handling of Oakland employees’ sexual harassment charges against Jacques Barzaghi, Brown’s longtime aide and former roommate. Barzaghi was suspended from his job for three weeks in 2001 after allegations surfaced, and Brown ultimately fired him in 2004 after Barzaghi’s wife reported a violent domestic dispute.

Meanwhile, the battle to become Schwarzenegger’s understudy turned into a seesaw contest between two venerable state lawmakers with nothing in common.

Garamendi, a 61-year-old former legislator and habitually unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, highlighted his two terms as a consumer-friendly insurance commissioner.

The Democrat also emphasized his support of abortion rights and stem cell research, tougher gun controls and aggressive measures against global warming.

McClintock, 50, stood on the opposite side on all those issues. He wrote bills that introduced lethal injection and gave murder victims’ relatives the right to witness the killer’s execution. A state legislator for two decades, McClintock hefted a solid reputation as a fiscal watchdog out to tame state spending.

The fight for secretary of state turned into a referendum on the security of electronic voting machines.

McPherson, 62, the incumbent appointed by Schwarzenegger last year to replace disgraced Democrat Kevin Shelley, argued that he turned a dysfunctional agency into an efficient, well-run office that has certified five types of electronic voting machines.

His main challenger, termed-out Democratic state Sen. Bowen, 50, countered that McPherson lacked innovation and failed to scrutinize machines that she argues are vulnerable to hacking and malfunctions.

The normally low-key race for state controller, meanwhile, evolved into a surprisingly high-stakes battle highlighting the office’s importance in matters of tax policy.

Strickland, 37, a former Republican assemblyman from Moorpark, reaped a windfall of nearly $2 million in independent campaign help from software giant Intel and a group of Southern California tribes that own casinos.

Chiang, 44, a lawyer and Democratic member of the state Board of Equalization, zeroed in on his Republican rival’s opposition to stem cell research in a bid to portray Strickland as being outside the California mainstream.

At the Democratic celebration in Los Angeles, the Asian American press mobbed Chiang, who told reporters that if he is elected he intended to “extend a helping hand to the governor.”

The outcome had added resonance because the winner fills the fifth seat on the Board of Equalization, the state tax board currently divided equally between Democrats and Republicans.

The board appeared to be steering that way again, with a pair of inland Republicans -- Bill Leonard and newcomer Michelle Steel -- and coastal Democrats Betty Yee and Judy Chu running far ahead.

In the fight to become insurance commissioner, the influence of industry money became a top campaign issue.

Poizner, 49, a Republican entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, put millions of his own money into the campaign.

But his Democratic rival, Bustamante, 53, caught flak for keeping insurance industry contributions after promising to return all the checks.

“I’m excited about the size of the victory,” Poizner said. “It will give me the ability to be quite bold.”

The contest for state treasurer featured a lesson in lopsided campaign monetary realities. Lockyer, 65, the Democratic attorney general and a longtime legislator, entered the race with more than $10 million compared with $323,000 for Republican Claude Parrish, 59, a Board of Equalization member.

As his lead built, Lockyer appeared briefly on stage to thank supporters, saying he felt “lucky to draw an unknown, underfinanced opponent.”

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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