Thomas D. Elias: Brown-Poizner matchup looking likely
Exactly one year from now, as the presidential race enters its homestretch, California’s next run for governor will be starting in earnest. Candidates, even the undeclared, will be beating the bushes for money and support.
So it’s time now to start making book on the race: Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Steve Poizner are the early-season favorites.
But things can change, and quickly. Exactly one year ago, the Democratic matchup looked like a wingding north-south race between Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Neither is now a front-runner, in both cases because they couldn’t keep their zippers fastened and their pants up.
Villaraigosa’s marriage split up over his highly-publicized affair with Spanish-language TV news reporter Mirthala Salinas, while Newsom’s honesty and loyalty have been questioned widely ever since his admitted affair with the wife of his onetime best friend and top political adviser. In both cases, the Teflon that’s applied to the storied womanizing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not work for these guys. Perhaps that’s because they don’t merely shrug these things off as small nothings the way he did when confronted with multiple revelations of what he called “bad behavior.”
All of which has opened the way for others. Most prominent of the additional Democrats now likely to run is Attorney General Brown, an ex-governor whose ideas once seemed screwball, but might not look so weird today.
While Brown’s father Pat used the attorney general’s office as a catapult into the state’s top office, Jerry Brown served first as secretary of state. Even though he was a two-term governor, serving from 1974 to 1982, he’s eligible for two more because he served long before voters established term limits in 1990.
Brown spent years rehabilitating himself from his prior flaky image, serving first as state Democratic Party chairman and later two terms as mayor of Oakland.
If he runs and their indiscretions knock off the big-city mayors, Brown’s chief primary election rival might be current Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who has made his office far more of a leadership post than almost any previous lieutenant governor. Despite the tiny staff that comes with the office, Garamendi has used his spot on the state Lands Commission to become a leader in imposing tough environmental conditions on offshore construction projects, especially proposed liquefied natural gas terminals.
Garamendi ran twice before in 1980s-era Democratic primaries and did not fare well, but he has far more imposing credentials today, including two terms as a tough state insurance commissioner. If he runs, expect less-well-known Democratic possibilities like state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter, a strong maverick in the Legislature for nine years, to seek lesser statewide offices.
On the Republican side, current Insurance Commissioner Poizner is plainly the frontrunner. As the only Republican besides Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in statewide office, he can command far more public attention and news coverage than anyone else in the GOP. While not widely known, he at least has run for statewide office once before – a de facto requirement unless you’re an actor a la Ronald Reagan and Schwarzenegger.
Poizner, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune by selling a company he founded, can also write himself almost unlimited campaign checks. This proved immensely useful last year, when he refused any money from insurance companies he now regulates and still far outspent better-known Democratic rival Cruz Bustamante.
His advantages, then, put him head and shoulders above other Republican leaders like state Sen. Tom McClintock of Ventura County, who ran third in the 2003 recall election, but has lost two attempts at statewide office. McClintock is more likely to seek a seat on the tax-regulating state Board of Equalization than risk being outspent 3-1 by Poizner in a run for governor.
But if he did run, there is no doubt McClintock has a passionate following among conservative Republicans. His biggest problem is that he almost certainly would stand little chance against any of the major Democrats because he’s perceived as a right-wing extremist.
Which leaves the most likely matchup as Brown vs. Poizner. Check back in one year to see if that situation stands up.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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