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Obama takes the best California has to offer

Thanks a bunch, Mr. President-elect. You’ve just taken away California’s best hope for government and political reform -- reform necessary to save this state.

It’s understandable because Leon Panetta would excel in practically any job he undertook -- whether reforming Sacramento or retooling the CIA.

Bright, personable and pragmatic. Articulate and dedicated.

Experienced and knowledgeable in government -- if not as a spy, at least in managing people.

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And two other assets: No one questions his integrity or intellectual honesty. Just a hunch, but I suspect there wouldn’t have been any Iraqi WMDs reported out of a Panetta-run CIA.

Unfortunately, Panetta’s crusade as a reformer of California’s dysfunctional government had only just begun. And his departure will leave a large void very difficult to fill, if not impossible.

Apparently President-elect Barack Obama had some turn-downs in his search for a new CIA director. So he recruited Panetta.

It’s typical Panetta. The 70-year-old former congressman and White House chief of staff needs another Washington job on his resume like he needs one more walnut tree in his 12-acre orchard near beautiful Carmel. But he’s from the old school: When your president calls, etc.

“Washington’s gain is California’s loss,” says Tracy Westen, chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies, a think tank that promotes political reform.

“He was a very important voice. He had a lot of credibility and prestige in California. He could draw a crowd, create a headline and pull people together. When he asked people to come to a meeting, they came. I think the Legislature respected him. And there’s not a lot of people like that in California.”

“It’s bad for the reform movement,” says Tony Quinn, a Sacramento veteran who co-edits the California Target Book, which chronicles legislative and congressional races. “He was the face of it here.”

Panetta has been co-chairman of a new reform group, California Forward, which played a significant role in winning narrow voter approval last November of Proposition 11. The ballot initiative eliminated the Legislature’s power to gerrymander its own districts -- rig the elections -- and will turn the task over to an independent commission.

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The fledging group’s early and outspoken support for Prop. 11 was particularly important because Panetta is a Democrat. Most of the Democratic establishment opposed the reform, fighting to keep the party’s gerrymandering power in the California Legislature that it almost always controls.

Actually, Panetta should have been governor.

But let’s back up.

A native Californian born in Monterey, Panetta idolized Gov. Earl Warren, a centrist Republican. After law school, he got a job with moderate GOP Sen. Thomas Kuchel by walking in the door unannounced and introducing himself. Later, President Richard Nixon forced Panetta’s resignation as U.S. civil rights director because of his aggressive pursuit of Southern school desegregation. That didn’t fit Nixon’s politics.

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Panetta went home, changed parties, beat an incumbent and became a congressman for 16 years. He was chairman of the House Budget Committee when President Clinton tapped him as his budget director. Later he became Clinton’s chief of staff.

Returning to Monterey after Clinton’s 1996 reelection, Panetta seriously considered running for governor in 1998. But he deferred to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, promising to support her if she ran. She vacillated. And by the time Feinstein bowed out, it was too late for the lesser-known Panetta to raise enough money.

“I’d have had to raise anywhere from $20 million to $40 million,” Panetta once told me. “I mean, my God! . . . This state cannot survive unless we open up the opportunity for more good people to run for office. You’re either independently wealthy or you’ve got special interests backing you. . . . I honestly believe that some kind of public financing is essential.”

Ironically, it was Feinstein -- Panetta’s main obstacle to a 1998 gubernatorial race -- who initially seemed to be threatening to block his confirmation as CIA director. Feinstein had just become chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and was offended when Obama didn’t give her a head’s up about Panetta’s selection. She also said the agency should be headed by a career spook.

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The Obama transition team screwed up by not tipping off Feinstein. It was doubly a breach of good politics and protocol because Panetta is from the senator’s home state. But Feinstein also wound up looking a bit petty in her stunned reaction because Panetta, after all, is a fellow Californian and a longtime political ally.

By Wednesday, however, everything was cool. Obama, Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Panetta all had called Feinstein separately, apologizing, explaining and reassuring.

“I’ve known Leon for 20 years,” Feinstein told reporters in Washington. “He is smart, he is credible and he is truthful. And I believe he will surround himself with very qualified intelligence professionals . . . and that we will have a very close working relationship.”

That’s fine. California’s two best potential governors will be corralling spies and trying to catch Bin Laden.

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Meantime, California is hurting for real change -- change voters can believe in.

Up next for California Forward is to push the Legislature for major budget reform.

Then for the 2010 election, it is considering ballot initiatives to create open primaries -- open to all voters, regardless of party -- and to loosen legislative term limits.

The Center for Governmental Studies is looking at campaign finance and initiative reform ballot measures.

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“Obviously we’re not going to fold our tent and go away,” says California Forward Executive Director James P. Mayer. “A lot of our success has been because of Leon’s involvement and star power. But fortunately this is California. We have other Californians just as committed and just as smart.”

But probably not as overall talented.

Meanwhile, Mr. President-elect, how about providing California with some economic stimulus as minimal mitigation for the personnel raid?

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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