Garamendi’s Long Political Journey Likely to Take Him to the House

Posted September 4, 2009 at 5:43pm

It may be more than 40 years since he played football and wrestled for the University of California at Berkeley, but at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 215 pounds, California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D) is still an imposing figure. Garamendi was a second-team All-American offensive lineman for the Golden Bears, and he was the West Coast Collegiate Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.

Yet he hasn’t let his days of athletic glory define his adult life. A week ago Garamendi, 64, received the most votes in the all-party primary to succeed former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D), who resigned to take a top post at the State Department. In the Democratic-leaning 10th district, Garamendi is heavily favored to defeat attorney David Harmer (R) in the November general election.

Tauscher routinely won two-thirds of the vote in her recent elections, and the district voted 2-1 for President Barack Obama last year. So even though Harmer is a credible candidate running an aggressive campaign — his father, in fact, is one of Garamendi’s predecessors as lieutenant governor — the bigger battle for Garamendi was probably winning the Democratic nomination last week by besting a state Senator and a state assemblywoman in the all-party primary.

Following his graduation from college in 1966, Garamendi and his wife, Patti, had a big decision to make.

“When Patti and I graduated from Berkeley, the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders wanted to draft me, but I said no, I want to marry Patti and go into the Peace Corps,— he said in a phone interview last week. The couple spent two years working on rural development issues in Ethiopia, and he said he still thinks about that experience every day.

In the decades since then, Garamendi has gone to work conquering California political life, developing a reputation for calculated ambition in a world of ambitious people. After finishing a master’s degree in business at Harvard University, he won his first elective office in 1974 when he became a state Assemblyman. He quickly followed that with election to the state Senate in 1976 and rose to become Majority Leader. He served as California’s insurance commissioner over two separate terms, and President Bill Clinton appointed him deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, where he focused primarily on Western water issues. Garamendi was elected lieutenant governor in 2006, defeating now-Reps. Jackie Speier (D) and Tom McClintock (R) in the Democratic primary and general election, respectively.

In 2010, the lieutenant governor was expected to run for governor, and he was in the early stages of setting up a campaign when Tauscher was nominated for the State Department position in March. In April, he switched gears, and now he says he never wants to be governor.

“The issues are in Washington, and I want to be on the playing field where those issues are going on,— he said. Though he declined to name the committee assignments he’ll seek, Garamendi said his wide-ranging expertise on headline issues of 2009, including health insurance, financial regulation and energy and environmental issues, would make him an asset to several committees. Because of the makeup of the East Bay district he hopes to represent, he’s also interested in transportation and the armed forces.

Outside of politics, Garamendi is known for his active family. His wife, Patti, is his closest adviser and is considered to be as ambitious as he is. She ran for state legislative offices and Congress in the early 1990s but never won. Now she is the assistant manager at the California Exposition and State Fair. They have six adult children and nine grandchildren. The Garamendis have hosted the annual Basque BBQ (Basque is a reference to Garamendi’s northern Spain/southern France ethnic background) at their cattle ranch for more than 30 years, and Garamendi said they’ve fed about 1,500 people recently. On the years he’s not running for office, the event raises money for charity.

The ranch became a source of controversy during the special primary because it enabled opponents to highlight the fact that Garamendi lives just outside the 10th district. But he was so well-known that it did not seem to matter in the end.

The former college athlete plans to be a force in Congress, but he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to play in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, which pits Democrats against Republicans each summer.

“If they want to sponsor a wrestling match, I’d be happy to do that,— he said.