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The Top Vote-Getter in America? Lockyer of California

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On election night last month, a small crowd of political enthusiasts gathered at a golf clubhouse in Hayward, California to cheer their winning candidate, Nadia Davis Lockyer, newly-elected to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. A strikingly attractive Latina, Ms. Lockyer is an accomplished public service attorney as well as a doting mother whose seven year-old son scampered around the room decked in a San Francisco Giants cap.

Self-effacingly lost in the crowd was the candidate's beaming husband. It happened to be his winning election night too, but his twelfth in 38 years, and he'd long since outgrown the excitement and hoop-la of electoral triumph. Hardly anyone in the room knew that Bill Lockyer would emerge that night as the top vote-getter in the United States - receiving five and a half million votes, more than any other elected official in America.

Weeks before, Lockyer had been as nonchalant when the San Jose Mercury News, endorsing his bid for re-election as California's State Treasurer, editorialized - using words long since absent from the lexicon of California politics - that, through his decades in office, he had "matured to near-statesman stature". Lockyer himself took more satisfaction in his campaign slogan - STRAIGHT TALK, NO BULL#*+!? - because, simply enough, it happened to be true.

Among political junkies, Bill Lockyer is famous (and sometimes infamous) for shooting from the hip. He often speaks his mind with astonishing frankness, not bothering to look over his shoulder to see which special interest, fellow Democrat or Republican opponent, might be offended. Being tarred by the knee-jerk Left or the Mad Hatter Right concerns him not at all. "Stature" has its privileges.

His particular brand of "near-statesmanship", bluntly calling on partisans of both parties to forget their obsessive bickering long enough to do their jobs and "make a deal" for the greater good of the State, resonated remarkably with Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats, even in the most conservative strongholds of southern California. Given that voters had to stroll down the ballot, well below the high profile Governor's contest, to give their mark of approval to a State official whose duties are probably a mystery to the majority of informed citizens, the message was clear: Millions of people liked what Lockyer had to say, as well as the way he said it.

Lockyer has four more years to serve, then will be prevented by term limits from again seeking re-election as Treasurer. Barring some blast of political lightning, and despite the millions of dollars still in his campaign fund, these may well be his last years in elective office.

He will begin those years next month, when he takes the oath of office on the steps of the Treasury building in Sacramento, standing below an oft-quoted poetic cliché carved into stone long ago, "Give us Men to match our Mountains".

Only a most astute political pundit might bother to attend the Lockyer ceremony, since that same day, the media will converge on the Capitol, a block away, to record the inauguration of the always entertaining and nationally-prominent Governor Jerry Brown.

Besides, Lockyer may say nothing historically memorable when he gives his Inaugural speech to a small claque of old friends, loyal admirers and well-wishers. No one would fault him if he simply promises four more years of diligent service as State Treasurer, continuing the job which both liberal and conservative observers feel he has done well in particularly difficult economic times.

But he might decide to take a radically different tack; he might signal his intention to use his "stature of statesmanship" as a bully pulpit, speaking out, in coming years, on the entire gamut of policy issues outside the purview of his current office.

If he does so, why would anyone bother listening to the ranting of another veteran politician?

For one thing, Lockyer is renowned among enterprising journalists for calling the shots as he sees them, providing quotable quips as colorful as Jerry Brown's, and speaking his mind, in his cerebral style of Plain Talk, without regard for political fallout. And even his outbursts carry an aura of authority, because he has even more varied legislative and executive experience than the septuagenarian Brown, having earlier served as State Assemblyman, President Pro Tem of the State Senate and Attorney General.

Why listen? Because Lockyer is the one prominent California politician to glorify the fine art of compromise, while personally defying partisan and ideological labels. He willingly pays the price of being a gadfly. Fellow Democrats can't understand why a former Republican leader of the Legislature would declare that Lockyer "should be Governor". Or why Lockyer should advise liberal colleagues that they might learn something about greater efficiency in government from GOP businessmen. Anti-tax conservatives who have hailed Lockyer's critique of budgetary juvenile delinquency, can't overcome their suspicion of a progressive Berkeley alumnus who calls himself a "fiscal hawk" but has never abandoned his commitment to social welfare for all those in need. And neither Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Democratic legislators were delighted when another newspaper described Lockyer, during one sophomoric budget squabble that resembled "playing chicken" in Jimmy Dean hot rods, as the sole "designated adult in Sacramento".

Above all, people might just listen to Lockyer because he could say intelligent, thoughtful things about what ails California that they just won't hear from any other elected official.

Six years ago, when he still harbored gubernatorial ambitions, Lockyer commissioned and funded a futuristic "Project California" that challenged experts in every area of public policy to produce innovative long-term solutions to state problems. Solutions that would look beyond the headaches of today to the potential of tomorrow, projecting what California must deal with in 10 or 20 years, when the State's population is expected to reach sixty million - the size of nation-states like England, France, Korea and Iran.

The media showed little interest in Project California, probably suspecting it was just another boring campaign gimmick by a would-be candidate, besides being too intellectual, too wonk-ish for popular consumption. So the Project produced a ream of thoughtful studies - which were then laid to rest in dusty files.

Lockyer might now dust off those files. He could begin to talk and write, plainly and honestly, about how California can solve its manifold problems if Democrats and Republicans and corporations and unions and environmentalists and educators can bring themselves to start thinking "outside the box". A public accustomed to tuning out the same old partisan BULL#*+!? might be more attentive to a "near-statesman" perceived as having risen above political ambition.

Should Lockyer choose to speak out - and to stick his neck out - to share the lessons he has learned over a lifetime of public service and point the way towards saving the State from seemingly hopeless difficulties, he would be taking a final step toward the "stature of statesmanship" and perhaps making his greatest contribution to a brighter future for California.

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