Dan Morain

Can a wealthy ex-Republican win office in California? Steve Poizner will find out

In 2010, then Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner ran as a Republican for governor. Now, he’s seeking a comeback by running for his old office, without a party preference.
In 2010, then Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner ran as a Republican for governor. Now, he’s seeking a comeback by running for his old office, without a party preference. hamezcua@sacbee.com

When then California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner last ran for office, a Republican consultant who had a way with words threatened to feed him through a wood chipper. Metaphorically, of course.

Although he avoided that ignominious end, Poizner lost his 2010 primary for governor to Meg Whitman, whose own political chances were then chopped into figurative pieces by Gov. Jerry Brown.

 
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On Monday, Poizner reemerged, telling me he is seeking his old position as California insurance commissioner, this time not as a Republican who ran to the right of Whitman, but as a no-party-preference candidate.

“There isn’t any room for partisan politics in the Insurance Commissioner’s office,” Poizner said.

Poizner would become the first Californian to win statewide as a no-party-preference candidate, although it could be the wave of the future, especially for former Republicans like Poizner who have money.

Republicans are a vanishing breed in California, holding a mere 25.9 percent of the electorate. Voters without a party preference soon will outnumber them. The Gallup organization recently reported that a dreadfully low 22 percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, down from 32 percent in 2004, probably a result of President Donald Trump’s divisive brand of politics.

In 2018, all candidates will be expected to take a stand on Trump. In 2016, Poizner was California chairman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican. He said he was unable to bring himself to vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton, and ended up voting for the Libertarian, Gary Johnson.

Poizner, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, spent $40.3 million on politics between 2000 and his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor. His entry into the insurance commissioner race was, in other words, not good for Democrats.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, ended 2017 with $305,000 in his insurance commissioner campaign account, and Asif Mahmood, a San Marino physician had $1 million in a state in which table stakes for a down ballot campaign run north of $10 million.

In an interview, Poizner offered the sort of wonky answers that anyone who paid attention to his tenure as Insurance Commissioner from 2006-10 came to expect. He intends to focus on three issues: Californians are grossly under-insured for fire, flood and earthquakes; health insurance costs must be contained; and companies must confront cyber crime and insure themselves against it. Insurance companies, he believes, can help force companies to do a better job of protecting their data by insisting on smarter fire walls. Riveting, right?

As insurance commissioner, Poizner did get solid reviews for running an independent shop, though he dropped that style in the 2010 race.

Whitman’s strategist, Mike Murphy, tried to force Poizner out of the race by promising unlimited help to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2012, one Sen. Dianne Feinstein won in a walk. If Poizner refused to step aside, Team Whitman would feed Poizner through “a wood chipper,” Murphy said. Poizner called for a criminal investigation. Murphy questioned Poizner’s mental stability, all this after Whitman’s ads ridiculed Poizner for doing the “Steve Shuffle.”

“Flip and flop is the name of his game,” or so the ad went.

In 2010, Poizner supported an inflammatory Arizona statute that would have made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant, turning local cops into immigration authorities. Conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, endorsed Poizner, saying: “This time, let’s have a governor from the Republican wing of the Republican Party – Steve Poizner.”

Perhaps Poizner is on the leading edge, not unlike Greg Orman, an independent businessman who is attracting attention as he runs for Kansas governor. Poizner said his views on immigration have “evolved based on new facts, and new data.” He will have to live down that partisan past in 2018, but only if his opponents can raise sufficient money to remind voters of that history.

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