Poizner, a 61-year old Silicon Valley zillionaire, finished first in the June 5 balloting for Insurance Commissioner — the first political independent ever to qualify for election to state office in California.
His victory, with 42 percent in a four-candidate field, carries huge political significance, a groundbreaking achievement in an election that marked the decline of the once-mighty California Republican Party to third-place status in the state.
Pre-primary figures show GOP registration – 25.1 percent – not only trailing the Democrats’ 44.4 percent, but also the steadily increasing share of Californians self-identified as No Party Preference independents, now 25.5 percent.
“If I can pioneer this path of demonstrating that you can run as an independent and win, it will open the door for other people who don’t want to be partisan warriors, but just want to serve,” Poizner said in a telephone interview with Calbuzz. “And if I do, it’ll be a very disruptive thing, in a positive way.”
First, however, the new champion of non-partisan politics faces a big, awkward political obstacle: his own words and record as a slashing partisan Republican.
The back-story. Political enthusiasts will recognize Poizner as the correct answer to a California trivia question: Who is the only Republican not named Schwarzenegger elected to statewide office in the 21st century?
In 2006, he captured the same office he now seeks, when he campaigned for Insurance Commissioner as an old-school, moderate Republican, stomped a Democratic hack and then applied his entrepreneurial skills, honed while making a private sector fortune in GPS technology, to one term in office.
Four years later, he blundered. Badly.
Under the old party-line primary system, Poizner reinvented himself as a fierce right-wing warrior to campaign for governor. He bashed Republican rival Meg Whitman, the eventual GOP nominee, as squishy soft on immigration, demanded an end to education and health care benefits for “illegal aliens,” called for National Guard troops to patrol the Mexican border and even backed a controversial Arizona law requiring people to carry proof of citizenship or legal status.
Born-again on immigration Given the shift in California’s political dynamics — where a strong majority of voters believes undocumented immigrants should be provided a pathway to legal residence and even citizenship — it’s not surprising that Poizner has since jettisoned his retrograde stance on immigration.
“I wish I had the 2010 campaign to do over again,” Poizner said, “because I no longer think my views (expressed then) on what to do with undocumented folks make any sense. And I regret it.”
“The solution that I concur with is similar to (Ohio) Gov. (John) Kasich’s which is if you’re undocumented here in California then we should put you on a pathway to become documented. If you a dreamer, we should put you on a pathway to become a citizen. That’s what I believe.”
Was his decision to run as an independent a rejection of the Republican Party? Calbuzz asked him.
“No,” Poizner said. “Do you feel fully in tune with the Republican Party still?” we asked.
“I wouldn’t say that necessarily,” he said. “I personally don’t have any interest in partisan battles. Not where I am right now. I am interested in being a problem solver for California. I think it would be really great if California had a super strong two-party system. We don’t. We have a monopoly going on there. I think offering more viable choices to voters would be a great thing.”
He said he doesn’t really have a problem with the Republican Party — whose voters he’ll need if he hopes to win in November — but partisanship is just not his thing right now. When push comes to shove, it sounds to us like Poizner is at heart a Kasich Republican (he worked to elect him president in 2016)
masquerading, posing, functioning — for now — as an independent.
And in this corner. Alas for Poizner, his 2010 harbinger of Trump performance will be recycled incessantly by general election foe and Democratic state Senator Ricardo Lara of Long Beach, seeking to make history himself, as California’s first openly gay statewide office holder.
“I’m glad he repents what he said,” a poker-faced Lara recently told political writer Joe Garafoli. “It’s an important part of his coming to terms with the new political reality.”
While disowning his own right-wing adventurism, Poizner remains mindful that he can’t win as an independent without attracting Republicans, no matter how toxic the Trump and GOP brands are in California, along with NPPs and moderate Democrats, as well.
Thus he conspicuously tap dances around questions seeking his views about the current occupant of the White House.
After Poizner outlined his affinity for Kasich, Calbuzz asked: ”So you don’t really have a problem with the Republican Party – you have a problem with Trumpism?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Poizner replied. “I have a problem with all the problems that aren’t getting solved in California. I wouldn’t put the burden of being responsible for all those problems on one party of the other. Or one person or the other.”
Bottom line. As a practical matter, immigration and most other hot button issues have little to do with being Insurance Commissioner, a low-profile but powerful autonomous gig overseeing 1,400 employees, a $250 million budget and a $300 billion insurance sector, the fifth largest insurance market in the world.
So despite his historic quest, Poizner cautiously focuses on specific and technical aspects of the job, desperate to avoid involvement in the bitter tribal and cultural wars Trump has ignited across the nation.
Which is why he argues: “There’s no room for partisan politics at the Department of Insurance.”
Unless you’re a partisan.