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Ex-Rep. Tom Campbell: Up to the Elbow Patches in State’s Budget Mess

Ex-Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) has spent much of his post-Congressional life in classrooms from Berkeley to Rwanda, teaching law and business.

But since being tapped by Golden State Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last November to become the state’s finance director, the 52-year-old former Congressman has been up to his elbow patches in budget woes, most notably the state’s pesky multibillion-dollar structural imbalance. It isn’t an enviable position for a politician to be in.

“It’s better to be Santa Claus than it is to be finance director,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who recently signed on to advise the 2006 gubernatorial campaign of state Controller Steve Westly (D). “Santa Claus brings everyone gifts but the finance director tells everyone no.”

The job’s potential downside, however, hasn’t dampened Campbell’s enthusiasm for “straightening out the budget” of one of the world’s largest economies, an effort he considers “not an ambition,” but “the ambition.”

“It will happen or it will not happen this year,” Campbell said, pointing to the Schwarzenegger-backed “Live Within Our Means” ballot initiative, slated to go before voters this November, that would restrict spending increases based on revenue intake. In his role, Campbell was a key player in crafting the $117.5 billion budget that Schwarzenegger signed on July 11 (the earliest such an agreement has been reached between the governor and the Legislature in five years).

If anyone can fix California’s chronic deficits, said several Golden State Republicans, it will be Campbell, who is viewed as bringing more credibility to the job, particularly when it comes to building relationships in the state Capitol, than his predecessor, Donna Arduin.

Arduin, who served just a year in the position, was a Florida transplant from the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and was never a popular figure in Sacramento, where her “abrasive personality” didn’t play well with state lawmakers, South said. Arduin left office to return to the Sunshine State and form a national economics consulting firm with supply siders Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore.

“He’s had much better relationships with members of both parties since taking the job,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP consultant who has served as an informal adviser to Campbell in the past. Schnur dubbed Campbell the “Sacramento version of John Roberts,” President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee.

Even some Democrats praised Campbell’s “ingratiating” personality and ability to work across the aisle.

“He’s a really smooth character,” South said, calling Campbell “an easy guy to work with” and “not a hard-core partisan.”

But other Democrats scoffed at the idea that Campbell, who spent two years in between Congressional stints as a state Senator, wielded much influence when it came to implementing economic policy.

“Nobody takes him seriously,” said Bob Mulholland, a consultant for the California Democratic Party. “Schwarzenegger’s political team runs the Department of Finance not Tom Campbell. … He’s like the Wal-Mart greeter.”

“He is Schwarzenegger’s political team,” shot back Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a Campbell friend. Rohrabacher said that he and Campbell shared a love of Irish pub music and “C movies” such as “The Toxic Avenger” and “Surf Nazis Must Die.”

Schwarzenegger tapped Campbell on the recommendation of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, chairman of Schwarzenegger’s council of economic advisors, who also served as an honorary co-chairman of Campbell’s unsuccessful 1992 Senate bid.

“In a lot of ways this is the ideal job for him,” Schnur said of Campbell’s role as budget chief. The position probably has “more influence over … California’s fiscal and economic situation than any elected official in the state except for the governor.”

“He’s an economist by trade, he saw the problems California was having spending about $1.25 for every 78 cents coming into California,” explained Campbell’s former Congressional Chief of Staff Casey Beyer, now chief assistant to the California secretary of state. “It’s all about public service.” (Campbell wrote his Ph.D. dissertation in economics under the guidance of the legendary University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.)

Campbell, who once clerked for then-Supreme Court Justice Byron White, is a former longtime Stanford Law School professor. He is on leave from his post as dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas business school, and said that after serving two budget cycles he’ll return to the ivory tower by March 2006.

Still, some California politicos said they were somewhat surprised that Campbell, who was not personally close to Schwarzenegger prior to his appointment, returned to public service after what had appeared to be a permanent transition into academia (Campbell had continued to serve as a law professor at Stanford during his tenure in Congress and in the state legislature).

“It seemed to be he was leaving politics and going back to the world of education,” said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.).

Campbell insists his re-entry into the public arena isn’t a precursor to a future run for elective office.

“I’m thrilled to be a professor,” he said. “I’ve got the leather patches going and the sweater has holes in it. … That’s all I see in the near term.”

Still, Campbell, conceded: “I have certainly not said never [to another political race] — that is the truth.”

Speculation on whether Campbell, who twice left his House seat to run for Senate, most recently to challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 2000 — he lost by nearly 20 points — has never entirely dimmed.

“Democrats, independents, moderate-to- conservative Republicans all say the same thing. He would have been a great Senator for the state. If he would run for office, he’d be a great governor,” Beyer said.

“He could run for statewide office again,” agreed Rohrabacher, though he acknowledged that it is difficult to get Republicans “elected to anything” in blue state California. “If he did he could call on me.”

Since leaving Congress in 2000, Campbell, who represented Silicon Valley, has significantly improved his abilities when it comes to old-fashioned politicking, said state GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim.

“What I’ve seen is a tremendous growth of his political skills,” Sundheim said, pointing to Campbell’s ability to reach out to ordinary voters and explain “arcane” subjects like the budget. “To be perfectly honest, sometimes historically that wasn’t Tom’s strength — talking to people about things that matter to them.”

Should Campbell choose to build on that outreach in the future, “I think he would be a great candidate. … He’s a good fit” for California, Sundheim said, emphasizing Campbell’s economic conservatism and socially moderate stances.

Sundheim added that he could also envision the former Congressman as a candidate to one day head the Office of Management and Budget or the Treasury Department or as a good choice for a federal judgeship.

“He’s one of the brightest stars in our galaxy,” Sundheim said.

In the meantime, Campbell, who last year published a law textbook “Separation of Powers in Practice,” and is already planning another book on business and the use of the law, hopes to return to Africa (perhaps as early as next summer), where he and his wife, Susanne, have lectured at universities in Eritrea, Rwanda and Ghana over the past four years.

Not only is Campbell “one of the smartest people on the planet,” noted Schnur, he’s also “one of the nicest people on the planet.”