Top Republican in California Running for His Old Job -- as an Independent
By Joe Garofoli
Former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- the most recent Republican not named Arnold Schwarzenegger to win statewide office -- is running for his old job.
But here's the twist: Unlike his successful 2006 campaign for the office, this time Poizner is running as an independent, making his candidacy a test of whether a candidate not affiliated with one of the two major parties can succeed in California. The former Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur boasts some unusual qualifications that other independent candidates don't, however. He's got some statewide name identification; he's held the job previously; and he's got deep pockets from selling his global-positioning company to Qualcomm for $1 billion in 2000.
Poizner said his decision to run has nothing to do with his animosity toward the GOP or its anemic standing in California.
Being unaffiliated with a party "really fits the post. There's no room for partisan politics" when you're regulating an industry, Poizner said in an interview Monday. "The insurance commissioner needs to be fiercely independent."
Poizner's biggest challenge, however, may be political. Will voters remember him as the pro-same-sex marriage, pro-abortion rights, Assembly candidate in 2004 or for the hard right turn he took on immigration during the bare-knuckle 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary that he lost to Meg Whitman?
Poizner spent upward of $25 million in that primary, largely on TV ads that hammered Whitman for not supporting a hardline position on immigration.
At the time, Poizner supported cutting "taxpayer-funded benefits" for "illegal aliens," including in-state tuition at public colleges. He wanted the California National Guard to assist federal authorities in patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border. He supported Arizona's controversial AB1070, which made failing to carry immigration documentation a crime and gave law enforcement officers broad powers to detain anyone they believed to be in the country illegally. He opposed sanctuary cities.
Poizner said Monday he's changed on many of those positions. He no longer wants to cut tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants and said his support of AB1070 was a mistake. He said time he spent with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whom he supported in the 2016 GOP primaries, softened his views on immigration.
He now believes that "Dreamers" -- undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children -- should have a path to citizenship. And he thinks others who are in the country illegally should have some way to gain legal status, such as a guest worker permit. He is "comfortable" with the sanctuary state law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in October.
"Eight years (since the gubernatorial primary) is a lot of time," Poizner said. "Now it's time for Republicans and Democrats to come together on this issue. To be a problem solver about it."
As insurance commissioner, he pledged to focus on cybercrime, for which many companies are underinsured, he said. Given the number of disasters hitting the state, he also wants to increase the number of Californians who have insurance.
At one point, Poizner bristled at a series of questions about his past positions saying, "I will answer your questions, but most of the things we are talking about have nothing to do with the office of insurance commissioner."
But they probably will be part of the campaign, as one of the leading Democrats in the race, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens (Los Angeles County), has made immigration issues and resistance to President Trump part of his campaign.
Lara is one of five Democrats, one Republican, and one Peace and Freedom candidate who have filed documents stating their intention to enter the race. The deadline to enter is March 9.
It will be "pretty hard to flip positions that are viewed by voters as a measure of your values," said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes elections in the state. "If you're going to change positions, you've really got to do a good job explaining why."
It's going to be harder for Poizner to run as an independent, Sragow said. He's seen voters in focus groups say that while they think both parties are corrupt, they're hesitant to vote for independent candidates.
"It's almost a brand thing," Sragow said. "If you're a Republican or a Democrat, you kind of know what you're getting. If you're an independent, you don't have that."
Added Lisa García Bedolla, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley: "If (Poizner) has got money, he doesn't need the party. It's easier to run as an independent if you're rich."
California Republican Party chair Jim Brulte declined to comment on Poizner's candidacy. One Republican currently in the race, Peter Kuo, has $3,726 cash on hand, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures.
"If he's being strategic, he's trying to distance himself from all that baggage," that Republicans -- particularly Trump -- carry in California, she said. But in a midterm election, the voters who may oppose Poizner because of his immigration stands -- Latinos, young people and other immigrants -- vote in lower numbers.
"Whites represent a disproportionate share of the electorate" in a midterm election, García Bedolla said. "If he manages to have positions on the economy and other things that are more in line with mainstream voters, he could find an audience."
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