LIKE MANY aspects of life in the political spotlight, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi's strengths are also his weaknesses.
The 10th Congressional District candidate has held public office for most of the past 35 years and has a depth and breadth of public policy experience unmatched by his opponents.
But with recent polling numbers for elected officials dipping to record lows, Garamendi's government ties could prove a liability in the Nov. 3 special election.
Voters are unhappy about, among other things, lawmakers' inability to reverse high unemployment rates and cure the recession. His opponents, chiefly Republican David Harmer, hope public angst will send votes their way.
But other than GOP cheerleaders, most consider a Garamendi loss unlikely in the heavily Democratic 10th.
The seat has been in Democratic hands since 1996 when former Rep. Ellen Tauscher upset Republican Bill Baker. Tauscher was confirmed in June as a U.S. State Department undersecretary for arms control and international security.
"In a low turnout special election where only die-hard partisans vote, the outcome has very little to do with the candidates," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP political consultant and co-author of the Target Book, a campaign guide. "Even if voters are mad, loyal Democrats are not going to vote for a Republican, and Dems outnumber Reeps in this district."
Garamendi is such a political fixture in California that many folks think they know everything about him.
Over 6 feet tall with chiseled features, ample charisma and an old-school public speaking style, he is right out of central casting.
His supporters describe him as highly knowledgeable about policy, diplomatic and a dedicated family man.
"John and his wife, Patty, have been marvelous volunteers in the Peace Corps, and they have a great family," said former Contra Costa Supervisor Sunne Wright McPeak, who co-chaired Garamendi's failed 1982 gubernatorial campaign and worked with him on water and tax policies. "More important, he is really substantiative about the issues."
Garamendi is a solid policy wonk with strong relationships, said former BART director Dan Richard, of Walnut Creek.
"John has known (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi for 30 years, and he served with (House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman) Henry Waxman in the Assembly," Richard said. "That's where the experience comes in. Knowing the people and the players can be very important."
While few question Garamendi's Democratic bona fides, he is not universally admired. Privately, some call him arrogant and in perpetual pursuit of media attention. Critics still snicker over his 2007 news conference to announce the naming of two wayward humpback whales, "Delta" and "Dawn."
Garamendi's opponents particularly dislike his wife's visible role as a partner in his public life.
He didn't endear himself to Democratic leaders this year when he publicly split with the party and denounced its May special election budget measures.
Party activists also were mad when he jumped into the easier 10th District contest and declined to run in District 3, where his Walnut Grove home is located, against Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold Hill. His Democratic primary challengers openly labeled him a carpetbagger.
And after he called GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger the "worst governor in California history," the governor stripped him of two-thirds of his office budget.
Garamendi shrugs off the naysayers.
"Criticism comes with the job," he said.
If he had listened to critics in 1974, he might never have entered politics.
Fresh out of Harvard Business School, he wasn't yet 30 years old and had little money. Veteran politicos told him to go back home.
But he won his first election and quickly moved from the Assembly to the state Senate, where he spent 14 years working on high-profile policies such as implementation of Prop. 13, the preservation of Lake Tahoe, water and health care.
Garamendi subsequently ran six statewide campaigns, winning three.
He was elected California's first insurance commissioner but despite broad praise for his work there, he would go on to lose a state controller race and two gubernatorial bids.
He then tapped his friend, newly elected President Bill Clinton, who hired him as deputy secretary of the interior. He participated in Kyoto Protocol, Headwaters Forest and California water talks.
The Garamendis returned to California to find the state insurance commissioner office he started in shambles. A successor, Chuck Quackenbush, had been forced to resign amid a campaign finance scandal. Garamendi reclaimed the insurance post and parlayed the job into a 2007 win in the lieutenant governor's race.
Until Tauscher resigned, Garamendi intended to leverage his statewide elected office into a successful gubernatorial bid. But he was behind in the polls.
Now, he says he is eager to return to the Capitol.
"The issues we are talking about today are the same ones I've been working on my entire career," he said. "This race feels right."
about the candidate
HOMETOWN: Walnut Grove
WEB SITE: www.garamendi.org.
FAMILY: Married to Patty. Six children and nine
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in business, UC Berkeley, 1966; master's degree in business, Harvard Business School, 1970.
BACKGROUND: Owner, Touch the Earth Ranch in Calaveras County; California lieutenant governor, 2007 to present; California insurance commissioner, 2003-2007 and 1991-1995; deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Interior under President Bill Clinton, 1995-1998; state senator, 1976-1990; assemblyman, 1974-1976. Waged and lost two gubernatorial bids and one for state controller. After college, he and his wife worked as Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia.