Bill Lockyer had spent a quarter century in the Legislature and was state attorney general when he all but declared his candidacy for governor in early 2005.
"Other than the office I now hold, the one and only office that has held abiding interest for me since I left the Legislature is governor of California," Lockyer told Democratic lawmakers in a letter at the time. "It's the job I want."
Three months later, the former Senate president pro tem was out of the race, running instead for the more attainable office of state treasurer. On Monday he announced he would retire from elective politics in early 2015 when he is termed out of that office.
Lockyer, 72, a longtime fixture in Democratic politics in California, will leave the Capitol having never lost an election - from a school board contest in San Leandro in 1968 to the Assembly and Senate and then 16 years in statewide office.
He was undefeated, but in his highest ambition unfulfilled.
"That was the goal. I had an interest," Lockyer said in an interview. "But there just was never a realistic opening for me to run for governor. ... There was never an opening for me, and I wish I could have been governor, but I understand ... everybody doesn't get their wish."
Lockyer will become the first of California's aging group of top-tier Democrats to retire from elected office. Gov. Jerry Brown, 75, is expected to seek re-election next year. The state's two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are 79 and 72, respectively.
Lockyer previously contemplated running for controller next year, and his absence from the race may provide an opening for either Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg or Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to run for statewide office. Both lawmakers term out next year.
Doug Herman, Pérez's political strategist, called the Controller's Office an "intriguing opportunity," while Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he is "considering a number of options for post-2014," and would "leave it at that at this point."
Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a former California Department of Finance chief deputy director, has announced her candidacy for controller. The incumbent controller, John Chiang, is raising money for a campaign for treasurer.
Lockyer, of Hayward, said his retirement is unrelated to the scandal last year in which his wife, Nadia, resigned her position as an Alameda County supervisor amid revelations of an affair and drug abuse.
"I'm ready to do something new and challenging," Bill Lockyer said. "I've been a fiscal officer for eight years, so the idea of serving additional years as controller is a little too much like, 'been there, done that.' "
Lockyer said he will remain involved in public policy, but it is unclear in what capacity. He said, "I don't know what it means next, but I expect to be a public citizen and active, and we'll just see."
Lockyer, who once described himself as "an active Democrat since I was in the sixth grade," considered challenging then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Republican's re-election bid in 2006, and he might have run for governor four years later had Brown, then a former governor, not mounted a campaign.
"Look, being governor, just like being president, is a matter not just of will, but of timing and circumstances," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist. "The circumstances just never gelled in a way that allowed him to make the plunge and run."
Lockyer said that despite not attaining the Governor's Office, "I feel like I've had a lot of great opportunities, so I have no complaints."
One of Sacramento's bluntest politicians, Lockyer made headlines when he revealed after the 2003 recall election that he voted for Schwarzenegger instead of Democrat Cruz Bustamante, saying he was "tired of transactional, cynical, deal-making politics." In his campaign for treasurer in 2010, Lockyer closed a campaign advertisement with the tagline, "Straight Talk, No Bull # +!"
Lockyer was highly regarded in the Legislature for his political acumen and negotiating skill. Jim Brulte, a former Senate Republican leader who is now chairman of the California Republican Party, said, "I think Bill Lockyer was the smartest legislator I ever served with."
He said Lockyer "got the policy side, but he also understood how to motivate majority party members to do what he thought was the right thing."
On the last night of the legislative session in 1996, in a dispute involving regulation of the gambling industry, Lockyer, the Senate's Democratic leader at the time, screamed an obscenity at Phil Isenberg, then a Democratic lawmaker, calling the assemblyman "Mr. Termed Out."
Isenberg, who countered by calling Lockyer "petty, petulant and juvenile," said Monday that he and Lockyer are friends and that Lockyer "was one of the smart guys in the business."
While in the Legislature, Lockyer authored legislation establishing the San Francisco Bay Trail, the 500-mile trail circling San Francisco and San Pablo bays. He worked on hate crime and tort reform legislation, but also on more modest measures, including a bill requiring utilities and other businesses making home service calls to meet certain "windows" during which they must arrive at customers' homes.
"I've never been a hell-bent advocate of government regulation," Lockyer said of the legislation in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "But once in a while the government must at least threaten to plunk its fat finger on the scales on behalf of the little guy."
As attorney general, Lockyer crusaded against corporate polluters and power companies involved in the energy crisis of the early 2000s. As treasurer, he gained national attention with a campaign to divest the state's two largest public pension funds of investments in the makers of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year.
Most recently, Lockyer's tenure has been marked by personal difficulties related to his wife's affair with a methamphetamine addict and her own drug abuse. Lockyer filed for divorce last year, but the couple are now seeking a reconciliation.
In an email to the Bay Area News Group last year, Nadia Lockyer accused her husband of once supplying her with drugs, a claim Bill Lockyer has denied.
"I love my wife, and I hope we'll all be reunified shortly," he said.
Lockyer said coverage of the scandal was "unnecessarily tabloid-ish" and that his wife was treated unfairly by the media. She won her position as an Alameda County supervisor in 2010 with the help of $1.5 million in contributions from her husband's war chest.
Lockyer was considering leaving office by summer 2012, when he privately expressed interest in becoming chancellor of the California State University system. He actively pursued the position, ultimately unsuccessfully.
But Lockyer said it was only in recent weeks that he became certain he would retire from elected office.
"It's been percolating for quite some time, but I finally decided that it's fair to other people that would wish to run that have deferred to me to let them know," he said. "There's a point at which you can just tell in your gut what you want or need to do."
Lockyer said he does not know how he will spend more than $2.2 million he had stockpiled for a campaign for controller.
"I assume there'll be lots of opportunities to use it in other campaigns to help candidates I think are good policy-makers, and some charitable work," he said. "I frankly haven't thought about it a lot."
HIGHLIGHTS SPAN DECADES
By the time state Treasurer Bill Lockyer retires from elected office in early 2015, he will have served a quarter century in the Legislature and 16 years in statewide office. The former attorney general and Senate president pro tem:
Authored legislation establishing the San Francisco Bay Trail, the 500-mile trail circling San Francisco and San Pablo bays.
Played a significant role in the so-called "Napkin Deal," a complex agreement involving liability law that was negotiated in Frank Fat's restaurant near the Capitol and outlined on a napkin.
Authored legislation requiring utilities and other businesses making service calls to meet certain "windows" during which they must arrive at customers' homes.
Successfully lobbied the state's two largest public pension funds to unload investments in the makers of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year.
Expanded the state's investigation of elder abuse and Medi-Cal fraud and fought efforts by the Bush administration to relax environmental protections in California while attorney general.
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Laurel Rosenhall of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.