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Dan Schnur

Who’s advising Steve Poizner?

The late Lee Atwater used to say that a candidate must be the Ulysses of his own campaign. “Tie me to my mast,” Lee imagined the politician saying to his crew. “Help me avoid those sirens.”

Lee’s point wasn’t that candidates aren’t smart and/or politically savvy. Rather, he believed that no matter how talented many candidates might be, they lack the perspective to effectively oversee their own campaign. It’s too easy to get too emotionally involved when it’s your own name on the bumper sticker, so having a person or persons around with slightly more emotional distance is almost always a good idea. But the key is picking the right people.

Which brings us to Steve Poizner. Steve is a smart, talented individual with a genuine commitment to public service. He is also worth about five zillion dollars and has demonstrated a willingness to spend his money on behalf of political causes that are important to him. He may be more centrist than many of the readers of this website (then again, so am I). But he’s definitely the type of person who we need more of in politics.

Poizner’s first foray into electoral politics was to run for a Bay Area Assembly seat that had been specifically drawn as a safe Democrat district. While Republicans like Tom Campbell and Jim Cunneen could once win elections in this area, the 2001 gerrymander made a Republican win an absolute impossibility. (See “Prop 77 — why we need it”)

Full disclosure: Poizner called me in 2002 to gauge my interest in helping him with his campaign. I told him that he had only two chances to win: run as an Independent or call the moving vans to relocate to another district, otherwise he’d be wasting his money. Unfortunately, there were plenty of Republican consultants, maybe blinded by hope or dazzled by greed, happy to help him. Poizner ran an outstanding race, spent a boatload of money, and lost a safe Democratic seat to a veteran labor organizer. Shocked, I tell you….

After his defeat, the Governor appointed Poizner to the Public Utilities commission. Overcome with the prospect of access to power, his advisors urged him forward while dismissing potential legal and financial conflicts that would have prevented him from taking the position. After looking into it, it turned out that the potential conflicts were unsolvable and he withdrew.

Schwarzenegger’s advisors then asked Poizner to take the lead in passing Proposition 77. After waiting for an answer for several weeks, Team Arnold turned to another wealthy Republican instead. Poizner instead announced his candidacy for Insurance Commissioner and a few weeks ago, agreed to chair the Prop 77 campaign. This week, the Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that $1.5 million from Scwarzenegger’s campaign committee that had been given to the Prop 77 campaign violated state campaign finance law, which prohibits one politician from giving unlimited sums to a candidate controlled initiative committee. (This is what got Cruz Bustamante in so much trouble during the recall campaign.)

More full disclosure: earlier this year, I suggested to Poizner that he take on the redistricting initiative and then announce his plans for statewide office after the election. Same thing, but in reverse order. Now, as a candidate, his Prop 77 committee can’t take Arnold’s money, and he comes out of the special election as a juicy target for Democrats who can beat him up on campaign finance irregularities.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not fishing for business. I’ve offered Poizner some advice in the past, I like him and I hope he stays involved because California politics needs him. But I’ll be voting for another GOP candidate for Insurance Commissioner next year.

Poizner’s a very smart guy with nothing but the best of intentions. But he’s going to continue to run into trouble as long as he keeps listening to people who are motivated by money and/or access rather than his commitment to policy change.