Meg Whitman has stumbled badly in recent weeks in explaining her history of being MIA from every significant political debate of the last three decades. But rival Republican wannabe governor Steve Poizner faces an equally tough challenge — explaining how he’s straddled both sides of key issues.
As Poizner tacks hard right in a bid to win support from the conservative GOP primary electorate, his record as a moderate Silicon Valley Republican (a Zschauist, for those who remember) offers an opening for Whitman and other critics to portray him as a chameleon who shades and calibrates positions to adapt to his political environment.
“Whitman may have only been a voter since 2002,” political scientist and former GOP operative Jack Pitney told the Orange County Register recently. “But Poizner’s only been a conservative since 2006.”
In a recent Calbuzz interview, Poizner criticized Gov. Schwarzenegger for his squishy lack of ideological rigor: “He doesn’t have, necessarily, my same devotion to a set of core principles,” he said.
The comment contrasts with the stance that Poizner struck in his first political campaign. Two years before he was elected Insurance Commissioner, he made a failed 2004 bid for a Bay Area Assembly seat; in that race, he was “marketing himself as an Arnold Schwarzenegger moderate,” according to a takeout of that campaign by Bill D’Agostino of the Palo Alto Weekly.
“Poizner is a wild card who criticizes the state’s partisan-based gridlock, often breaking with the Republican party line,” he wrote about the campaign for the 21st Assembly District, “Poizner has even drawn support from lifelong liberals.”
Contrasting Democratic candidate Ira Ruskin’s “easy to pin down” views, D’Agostino wrote that “Poizner has proved much more slippery. For one thing, most of his campaign ads and literature have downplayed – or outright ignored – his status as a Republican candidate.”
Jean Whitney, who wrote about the race for the San Mateo County Daily News, described his campaign this way: “Poizner…has positioned himself in the race as a moderate and in some campaign mailers avoided the GOP label entirely – describing himself as ‘independent’ and independent-minded.”
As a practical matter, Poizner was running in a Democrat-dominated district, so it clearly made sense for him to present himself to voters as a centrist. As a political matter, however, his words and actions in a race just five years ago in some ways conflict with his self-portrayal as the purest core conservative in the governor’s race, at a time when partisan purity is crucial for many Republicans.
“Steve is not the political newcomer that he was years ago, he’s learned, studied and now has had to implement public policy,” Poizner communications director Jarrod Agen said, when asked about the candidate’s shifts. “As he’s gotten an up close and personal view of the corrupt and broken system in Sacramento, he has put a much stronger emphasis on the need to cut spending and lower taxes.”
Here’s a then-and-now look at Poizner’s stances on some key issues:
Abortion rights: In his first foray into politics, Poizner highlighted his pro-choice credentials, to the extent that he won the endorsement of Planned Parenthood over a Democratic opponent. In the governor’s race, Poizner has maintained his pro-choice position, but downplays it, telling Calbuzz that “I really do feel quite passionate about being against abortions.”
Gay marriage: In 2004, according to the Weekly, Poizner said he “opposes the (federal) constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.” In our interview, he said he supports Prop. 8, the state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage.
Taxes: In his moderate days, Poizner helped organize and lead a new group formed for the purpose of working to reduce, from two-thirds to 55 percent, the vote needed for local tax increases for education. He also supported local sales tax increases for several transportation projects. In the governor’s race, however, he has set forth a radical program of across-the-board tax cuts and told us he staunchly opposes any move to reduce Prop. 13’s two-thirds requirement for tax increases.
George Bush: In the 2004 race, now-Assembly member Ruskin hammered Poizner as a clone of then-President George Bush, and put up a TV ad attacking him for contributing $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign; Poizner’s campaign flack described the ad linking her candidate and the president as “a shameful distortion of the record,” while Poizner himself “refused to say” who he was supporting in Bush’s re-election campaign against Democrat John Kerry, according to the Weekly. Today Poizner says he voted for Bush and “later worked in his administration,” a reference to a temporary stint as a White House Fellow, when he worked under anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke.
Democratic contributions: To counter Ruskin’s attack on his Bush contribution, Poizner’s press secretary in 2004 “pointed to Poizner’s $10,000 contribution to the Democratic National Committee in 2000 and $1,000 to Democrat Al Gore in 2000,” according to a Jean Whitney story. In the governor’s race, Poizner has acknowledged writing the two checks in support of the Democrat’s 2000 presidential efforts, plus a later $10,000 check backing Gore’s efforts in the Florida recount, but says he did so on behalf of his wife, who is a Democrat.
“His wife is a Democrat, she wanted to attend the fundraising events and then support the recount, so he wrote the checks,” Agen told Calbuzz. “He was the contributor since he was the one writing the checks. It would have been a violation for Steve to put anyone else’s name down…His family has given to both parties and he is open to hearing out the other side of the aisle before making decisions.”
But Whitman Communications Director Tucker Bounds argues that the contributions offer a case study of Poizner talking out of both sides of his mouth:
“Steve Poizner is blaming his wife and it proves he is the worst kind of politician – the type who will say or do anything,” Bounds said. “His strong support of an attempt to overturn the legitimate election of George W. Bush is an irrefutable fact and still Poizner would rather blame his wife than take responsibility.”
Last word to Agen: “Meg blames her husband and children for not being able to vote for 28 years. Steve is not blaming his wife. He doesn’t blame anyone for supporting Gore – quite a few Americans did, one of whom was Steve’s wife, but Steve just isn’t one of them.”
P.S. Team Whitman is guilty of glass house rock tossing in bashing Poizner on campaign contributions. As Chronwoman Carla Marinucci reported Friday (go back on vacation, already, willya?) eMeg not only donated $4K to Barbara Boxer’s 2004 re-election campaign, but also put out a gushy statement calling her a “dynamic and courageous leader.” In the past Her Megness also forked out $25,000 to various campaigns of Democrat Steve Westly, her former colleague at eBay, according to the Secretary of State’s web site.
Only eight months until the primary – God, we love this stuff!.