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Son of Leon Panetta considering run for Congress

- Says he'll wait for Farr to retire


Published: March 22, 2013

THE MONTEREY Peninsula’s political landscape experienced a seismic shift this week when county deputy district attorney James Panetta — son of former Defense Secretary, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Congressman Leon Panetta — confirmed he is considering a run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Many local Democrats have their eye on the seat occupied by Sam Farr, 71, who succeeded the elder Panetta in Congress in 1993.

In an extensive interview with The Pine Cone from his Salinas office, James Panetta talked affectionately about giving back to the community — one of many values he said his grandfather, Carmelo, instilled in him.

“My grandfather came here from Italy and always said, ‘Give back to your community and country which has given us so much,’” Panetta said.
Panetta, who served in the Navy reserves for nearly nine years and was awarded a Bronze Star while on active duty in Afghanistan in 2008, said he may decide to run for the congressional seat now occupied by Farr and previously occupied by Leon Panetta for 16 years.

“I’ve talked to people about it, and it’s something I’m seriously considering,” the younger Panetta said.

‘Knew in my heart’

A 43-year-old graduate of Carmel High School (class of 1987), Panetta moved back to the Monterey Peninsula three years ago after working as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County for 13 years. His wife, Carrie, is an Alameda County Superior Court judge, and the couple has two girls, ages 6 and 8.

“Even though I was gone up in Oakland and was doing my job there, I always knew in my heart that this is where I’ll be,” he said. “Part of the reason I came home was to serve my community.”

But Panetta said he won’t commit to running for the representative seat until Farr retires.

“Sam is doing an excellent job, and until he decides to step aside, that decision won’t be made,” he said.

His father told The Pine Cone Thursday he supports his son’s aspiration to run for office.

“First and foremost, Sylvia and I are proud of all three of our sons — two lawyers and a doctor,” Leon Panetta told The Pine Cone Thursday morning. “As for Jim, he has always been interested in public service as long as I can remember.”

Though James Panetta has closely followed in his father’s footsteps, and has often asked him for advice concerning his career, Leon said his son has also helped steer him in the right direction.

“Frankly, I have always looked to Jim to give me a sense of what the hell I’m doing,” he said, laughing.

Panetta was a Naval intelligence officer in the Joint Special Operations Command when he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. His duties included providing counterintelligence to special forces, including Navy SEALS. He was awarded a Bronze Star for “meritorious service,” before leaving the reserves in 2011. Specifically, he was lauded for “identifying and tracking high-value Al Qaeda targets” in the Afghanistan War, according to a Naval Postgraduate School publication.

As a result of his military history, and the fact he’s a strong advocate for veterans, Panetta said as a congressman, he would highlight “the men and women who served our country.” Based on his role as a prosecutor assigned to the gang unit, he’d also focus on public safety, gun control and crime prevention.

And with roots firmly attached to the Monterey Peninsula, Panetta said he would do what’s possible to help young families without a lot of money to live here.

“Based on the fact I grew up here,” he said, “I’ll be dedicated to protecting the beauty of [the area], but also providing a balance so people have the opportunity to live here and raise their families here, like we did.”

Already lining up

Panetta — who sits on a half-dozen boards and committees, including the Veterans Transition Center and Rancho Cielo — already has the backing of many local leaders.

“Jimmy has his dad’s commitment to service and his intellectual curiosity, plus his charm, integrity and character,” according to Carmel City Councilman Ken Talmage. “Leon Panetta is one of the great public servants of our generation. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.”

While Farr was reelected in November 2012 and will serve for another two years, vice chair of government affairs for the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce J. Fagan said he believes Panetta is the man to succeed him.

“So, when the time comes that the 20th District opens — if you are asking is JP our guy, you betcha!” Fagan said.

Fagan said Panetta shares Farr’s devotion and concern for the community and the people he serves.

“That’s the magic, the good stuff,” Fagan said, “the quality that separates the politician from the revered leader, and James Panetta has this in spades.”

Though there’s been lots of speculation that Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett might try to succeed Farr, Burnett said that for now, he’s concentrating on serving Carmel and spending time with wife and young son, Sebastian.

“What I’ve always said is that I’m focused on being mayor, and I do plan on running for mayor again a year from now,” Burnett told The Pine Cone. “I don’t have any other plans. And even more to the point, at this stage, primarily because of my family, I want to be able to be home every morning and every evening to be with them.”

Childhood friend Paul Lecce recalled the early days when he and Panetta played baseball, football and generally hung out together in Carmel Valley, where they both lived.

“You know what I like most about him is, he is a genuine guy,” Lecce said. “He’s honest, loyal and has always been a good friend.”

Panetta was also the “only kid who could bench-press 300-plus pounds,” Lecce added. “Nobody could out-muscle him. He was too strong.”

Vinz Koller, chair of the Monterey County Democratic Party, said while he wishes Farr would “never retire,” there are several “terrific” local Democrats in the wings who could take his place.

“Jimmy Panetta is one of them,” Koller said. “If he were to decide to run, he’d certainly be a very strong candidate. He’s highly qualified and a great guy.”