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Democrats relish victories in most statewide races

Times Staff Writers

Despite a landslide loss at the top of the ticket, jubilant Democrats emerged triumphant in most statewide races Wednesday with plans to push the party agenda while also pledging to work cooperatively with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During a victory celebration at party headquarters here, several winning Democratic candidates -- including Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the attorney general-elect, and incoming Lt. Gov. John Garamendi -- talked of reforming healthcare, revamping elections and education, and putting a crimp on crime and pollution.

They also said the Democratic takeover in Congress should pay dividends for California, which continued this year to lean to the left in congressional and state legislative races.

“We have now a Congress and a Senate that will be able to carry out its constitutional mandate of checking and balancing the excesses of the Bush administration,” Garamendi told a throng of cheering supporters. “There’s a big change, and it’s all good for California.”

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Garamendi called on his fellow victors to “address the challenges that are before us,” citing the need to improve the state’s education system to meet growing demands.

“There’s no other way for us to meet the challenge of the competition from around the world, as well as the challenge of assimilating into California all of these cultures of the world,” he said.

Garamendi, who has served as insurance commissioner the last four years, also said he planned to fight for improvement in the University of California and California State University systems. He serves on the governing boards of both systems.

As they have in the past, Democratic candidates dominated on the coast, overcoming the edge their Republican rivals enjoyed in the Central Valley and down the spine of the Sierra Nevada.

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Three of the Democrat victors -- Garamendi, treasurer-elect Bill Lockyer and Brown, a two-term governor a quarter-century ago -- are being eyed by pundits as potential governors in waiting, elbowing for advantage over the next four years before Schwarzenegger steps down in 2010.

In the meantime, the new officeholders vow to work with the governor, who won in a landslide after a year of making nice with the Legislature’s dominant Democrats.

Though several contests were tight, Schwarzenegger’s coattails helped only one other Republican prevail: Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Poizner, the next insurance commissioner and a moderate considered by many in his party to be a potential gubernatorial hopeful.

Poizner seemed intent on proving that a Republican can be an effective advocate for the needs of consumers.

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He talked of getting to work quickly to drive down insurance rates, win legislative approval for making the insurance commissioner a nonpartisan office and secure prohibitions on industry contributions to future candidates for the post.

Poizner also pledged to target insurance fraud, which costs employers and consumers an estimated $15 billion a year. In part, he vowed to quickly fill vacancies in the ranks of the department’s fraud investigators.

He also said he would outlaw the alleged practice of insurers canceling or failing to renew policies after homeowners file legitimate claims. He said he was excited about becoming insurance commissioner because “it’s a role that has an effect on every consumer and business in California.”

Garamendi and Brown talked about working hard to address climate change, in particular with the state’s new rules on greenhouse gases that were signed into law by Schwarzenegger.

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Brown said he intended to use the attorney general’s powers to help frame the rules, “and defend them from the attacks that are going to come.”

He also said he wanted to put together a reservoir of police who could be called to other jurisdictions facing temporary crises, such as spikes in street crime.

“We’ve got to make sure our neighborhoods are safe,” said Brown, who this year saw homicides skyrocket in Oakland. “If you have violent crime, no matter whether you’re rich or poor, your life is miserable.”

Brown also talked of addressing the underground economy to ensure that workers’ rights are protected, and to “make sure that every worker gets paid exactly what he deserves and what the laws of California require.”

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Debra Bowen, meanwhile, said she anticipates “major changes” when she assumes the role of secretary of state early next year. Among other things, she wants to boost voter rolls and increase participation on election day.

After a race that became a referendum on electronic voting, Bowen pledged to conduct a thorough review of current systems. She also talked of working to increase the number of youths involved in elections, including drafting high school and college students to work at the polls.

John Chiang cited his strict fiscal record as a member of the state Board of Equalization as the factor that helped him overcome former Assemblyman Tony Strickland in the surprisingly testy fight to become state controller.

His election had reverberations for the Board of Equalization. As controller, Chiang will be the board’s fifth member, breaking a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans.

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On Tuesday, two inland Republicans captured seats on the board -- incumbent Bill Leonard and newcomer Michelle Steel -- while incumbent Democrats Betty Yee and Judy Chu easily won reelection in their coastal districts.

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scott.martelle@latimes.com

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report. Martelle reported from Oakland, Bailey from Sacramento.


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