Steve Poizner is the Republican to watch for California’s 2010 gubernatorial race, according to many pundits — awfully good press for someone who won’t be sworn into his first public office until January.
The California insurance commissioner-elect has made a splash as the only Republican to win a statewide office here this year, besides re-elected incumbent Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I’ve seen some of the speculation, but I am focused 100% on being the best insurance commissioner the state has ever had, period,” Poizner recently told the Forward.
The third time was the charm for Poizner, 49, a moderate who’s active with the Republican Jewish Coalition and is a member of the Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif. A Silicon Valley multimillionaire, he spent about $7 million out of his own pocket seeking a State Assembly seat in 2004, outspending Democrat Ira Ruskin by about 4-to-1 but losing by three percentage points. Tapped by Schwarzenegger to lead a legislative redistricting-reform ballot measure in 2005, Poizner put $2.25 million into that campaign; it failed by 20 points.
“I definitely learned a lot in those previous campaigns,” he said, describing them now as crusades against legislative gerrymandering, one of his biggest peeves. “Sometimes it’s worth launching into a noble battle even if you realize from the beginning it’s going to be like climbing like Mount Everest.”
This year, he spent $13.6 million of his own money to win the insurance commissioner’s post. After scaring two other Republicans out of even filing for the primary, he ran unopposed in June and then mounted an intense television-ad blitz against Democratic nominee Cruz Bustamante, sitting lieutenant governor and a career politician whom Schwarzenegger defeated in the 2003 gubernatorial recall vote.
Bustamante started with better name recognition than Poizner, but hurt himself by taking campaign money from the insurance industry he aspired to regulate, and by oddly focusing his campaign on his personal weight loss. Poizner got 51% of the vote to Bustamante’s 38.5%.
“I call [Poizner] the Energizer Bunny of the 2006 election cycle,” said former California Republican Party executive director Jon Fleischman, now a conservative blogger. “I’ve never met anybody who worked harder or was more diligent about doing everything he could to win a public office. He’s blessed with a very disarming demeanor, and he is refreshingly candid with people. I think the strength of his personality oftentimes helped ideologues put aside their personal differences with him.”
Poizner sits on the Republican Jewish Coalition’s president’s council.
“I had identified Steve very quickly and early as a talented and hardworking guy,” said RJC California state director Larry Greenfield, who described his “very warm relationship” with Poizner since the 2004 Assembly race. “Here’s a guy who’s not a career politician; he’s a problem solver, he’s a businessman…. It just all added up to be exactly the kind of guy I and many RJC folks wanted to get behind.”
Poizner has spent the weeks since the election traveling up and down the state to meet consumer groups, insurance-industry representatives and the California Department of Insurance’s 1,300 staffers. “I’m sure pleased to be out of campaign mode and ready to get to work here,” Poizner said on December 5. “I enjoy being a candidate, but that’s not my focus; my focus is getting into a position where I can work to solve some of the issues that face California.”
The insurance department regulates the industry’s rates and practices, basically serving as a consumer-protection agency. While campaigning, Poizner called the commissioner’s job — an elected office since 1991 — “the most important economic policy-making position in California, second to the governor.” He has said he wants to crack down on insurance fraud and uninsured motorists while ensuring that the state is adequately prepared for natural disasters.
Outgoing Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi — a Democrat just elected lieutenant governor — was aggressive on Holocaust-insurance restitution. He harshly criticized the “sloppy” management of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, and fought the insurance industry to preserve a state law that would have sanctioned insurance companies for not publishing Holocaust-era policy information; the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 2003.
Poizner said that legal advisers are briefing him on whether Holocaust-related legal issues remain to be resolved by his office. “As a Jewish American, I’m very concerned about whether Holocaust victims were not properly serviced by insurance companies in Europe,” he said. “It’s something I’m quite passionate about.”
With an electrical-engineering degree from the University of Texas and a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University, Poizner founded SnapTrack, a company that developed technology to help pinpoint 911 emergency calls from cell phones. Qualcomm bought SnapTrack in 2000 for $1 billion in stock, catapulting Poizner’s net worth into the hundreds of millions.
Arriving for the White House Fellows program shortly before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he wound up becoming the National Security Council’s director of critical infrastructure protection. After returning to California, he volunteered to teach government at a high school in San Jose, Calif.
Veteran GOP campaign strategist Kevin Spillane, who briefly worked for one of Poizner’s two nascent rivals in this year’s primary, agreed with Fleischman that Poizner’s new bully pulpit and personal wealth would leave him “well positioned to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2010.”
“But of course,” Spillane noted, “he has to perform in office.”
Spillane said that Poizner has proved “willing to work hard and work his way up the ladder,” winning this powerful but unglamorous office rather than going straight for the governor’s office or for a U.S. Senate seat, as some political-neophyte millionaires have done.
“He is the one to watch,” Spillane said. “The Democrats know he has serious potential for higher office, and it’ll be interesting to see how they interact with him.”