Candidates for lieutenant governor in California often have to explain not
only what they are going to do with the office, but also why they want a job
that has little official power. But the post has enormous potential, say the
three high-profile candidates on the Democratic side this year: Insurance
Commissioner John Garamendi and senators Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, and
Liz Figueroa, D-Sunol.
All three have long histories in the issues around which lieutenant
governors have some influence: consumer advocacy and education. Each sees a
more active legislative role for the office, proposing bills and using their
extensive connections to find sitting legislators to carry them.
“It has an incredible potential to influence public policy,” Garamendi said.
“It has the power of persuasion and advocacy.” What it doesn’t have is the
power to directly create policy. Garamendi outlined a strategy using the
lieutenant governor’s role on various commissions–such as the University of
California (UC) Board of Regents, California State Universities Board of
Trustees and the State Lands Commission–as “footholds” in order to publicize
problems and push legislative solutions. Some of his top issues include
universal health care and guaranteeing school funding.
Speier said that she wants to push for the lieutenant governor to also sit
on the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. She also wants to
reverse a trend that has seen California go from funding 50 percent of the
UC system 30 years ago to only 27 percent today, with a corresponding rise
in tuition. The UC system has 160,000 students, she said, compared to
170,000 prison inmates; the latter cost the state nearly $8 billion a year,
she added, compared to $2 billion for UC spending.
Figueroa said she wants to use the office to increase access to health
insurance for the 700,000 uninsured Californians. She said this would
continue the work that she started in the Legislature when she joined with
then- Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in 1997 to create the state’s
Healthy Families program.
Whichever Democrat gets the nod will be favored to beat Senator Tom
McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, in a general election. According to a Field
Poll released last week, Garamendi leads on the Democratic side with 31
percent support, compared to 21 percent for Speier, 12 percent for Figueroa–
and a whopping 36 percent undecided.
This would appear to create a two-way race between Garamendi’s name
identification and Speier’s war chest. According to recent filings, Speier
has $2.6 million on hand–nearly as much as Garamendi, Figueroa and
However, Garamendi said that Speier is “well-known within a square mile of
the Capitol.” Statewide, he said, his two terms as insurance commissioner
have helped give him twice her name recognition, a figure that is consistent
with internal polling figures provided by Speier’s campaign. Garamendi said
that he is ramping up his own fund raising. Meanwhile, Speier will be forced
to spend money to raise her visibility while fending off Figueroa, who is
likely to siphon off voters looking to support a Bay Area woman. In
February, popular conservative blogger Max Rexroad compared Figueroa to
Ralph Nader for her potential to bring down Speier.
“Liz told my campaign people yesterday in Oakland no way is she dropping out
of this race,” Garamendi told the Capitol Weekly on Saturday. He added that
Speier “does not have enough money to match my name ID.”
The bad news for Garamendi, according to the Speier campaign, is that his 82
percent name ID has translated into only 31 percent support, while she has
22 percent support with only half the name ID.
“It shows that people know him but don’t necessarily support him,” she said.
Speier confirmed that she is about to spend much of her money on a big,
statewide TV buy. She also has a story compelling enough to match
Garamendi’s status as a former All-American football player at UC
Berkeley–she survived the Jonestown massacre as a young aide to Rep. Leo
Ryan in 1978, something she talks about in a video on her Web site.
Figueroa also has a story to tell, that of being a child of immigrants from
El Salvador. She also has only about $500,000 on hand, the least of the
three. But she also is preparing a large media buy for spots she taped last
weekend. She also noted that she has gotten enormous free coverage on
Univision and other Spanish-language media during the recent protests
against the federal immigration bill. The fact that she would be the first
Latina woman elected to statewide office in California would give her an
appeal that has not yet shown up in polls, Figueroa said.
“It’s not just Latinos, it’s [all] immigrants,” Figueroa said.
Whoever wins, however, will inherit an office that has frustrated some
experienced politicians. Even the man who both Speier and Garamendi
identified as the lieutenant governor whose use of the office they would
most like to model themselves on, Democrat Leo McCarthy, often expressed
frustration with the limits of the office during his tenure between 1983 and
For one thing, McCarthy said, he served only under Republican governors
George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. For partyidentification reasons, neither
sought to draw him into the decision-making process, McCarthy said.
Furthermore, despite his 14 years in the Assembly, six of them as speaker,
McCarthy said it was sometimes difficult to push legislation from the
state’s number-two office.
“Once you leave the Legislature, there are a lot of people there who think
you should go on to your new job,” said McCarthy, who has endorsed Speier.
But McCarthy said he did manage to get some things done. One key is to gain
allies, such as when he worked with the Little Hoover Commission to help
push nursing-home reform through the Legislature in 1985. Another is to
choose a small number of issues and be persistent. One example, McCarthy
said, is when he joined with two other UC regents in pushing the school to
divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime.
McCarthy said one of his best accomplishments was a series of eight trade
missions taking California companies to China between 1986 and 1992.
“In China, being the lieutenant governor of California means a lot more than
in California,” McCarthy said.