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More to Poizner than money, but good journalism is needed to point it out

Last month, the University of California Center Sacramento announced a new program to teach collegians how to report on government and politics. Headed by A.G. Block, the former editor of the now-defunct California Journal, the program sees its purpose as helping enterprising students get published, thereby “keeping the electorate informed” and “training the next generation of reporters and editors.”

If Block’s contribution to last week’s Capitol Weekly is any indication of the example he’s setting for his kids (“Poizner’s Drive and Money, Mostly His Own, Define His Politics”), then let’s forget about the next generation of journalists. The real question is: who’ll teach the teacher?

Block’s main assertion is that Poizner – chairman of the Yes on Proposition 77 campaign, a candidate for State Insurance Commissioner and, last year, an Assembly candidate – is using his personal fortune to bully his way across California’s political landscape. In Blocks’ words: wielding his bankroll “the way Bufford Pusser administered the law in Tennessee.”

[Full disclosure: Last year, I served as Poizner’s chief policy scribe during his Assembly run. And I’m helping him with his Prop 77 campaign.]
Granted, politics is a contact sport – something Poizner has learned the hard way in both his Assembly and IC races. However, Block’s obvious lack of respect for the man – he calls him “Arnold’s recent choice to play Custer in the Prop 77 redistricting melodrama” – leads to distorting the truth.

Block claims that Poizner’s wealth stems from “smart and timely entrepreneurship during the dot-com craze.”. Not quite. Poizner made his money by starting a company from scratch that tracks cell phones in emergencies (atypical of the dot-com mentality: instead of killing time on a yacht in Tahiti after his big pay day, Poizner instead taught in an inner-city public high school for a year).

The reality of why Poizner outspent his opponent in the 21st Assembly District has to do with campaign mathematics. Thanks to redistricting, Republicans account for only 31 percent of the 21st AD. If Poizner had been a low-profile candidate, voters would have never given him a sporting chance after seeing the (R) after his name. Poizner went to unusual lengths to raise his name identification by resorting to sweat, not stock equity. By his own estimate, he knocked on 10,000 doors during a year-full of precinct walks. Without the heavy media assault, in a district that John Kerry carried by 34 percent, there’s no way that Poizner would have pulled in nearly 49 percent of the vote on Election Day.

Block’s other beef is Poizner’s objection to out-of-district campaign donations. Block might find it interesting to know that the money pumped into the 21st AD on the behalf of Poizner’s opponent wasn’t all spent on bumper stickers and straw hats. The third-party funny money was used to smear the Republican candidate – one of the worst examples of such underhanded tactics being a letter signed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (which the mayor initially denied signing) linking Poizner to the historical suppression of women’s and African-Americans’ voting rights. Even the Silicon Valley NAACP came to Poizner’s rescue and was highly critical of the race-baiting.

That’s the type of gutter politics that surreptitious, third-party, out-of-district money spawns. Just as poorly designed districts force a candidate to go to extreme financial lengths just to make an Assembly race competitive. You’d think Block would get that, considering what he wrote just after last November’s results:

“Change aside, the election was instructive . . . And it once again showed that redistricting has erected impregnable fortresses behind which Republicans and Democrats dwell in safety. Only 14 out of 153 district contests for Congress, state Senate and Assembly generated any real competition. Moreover, not one produced an upset and only one brought about an Election Night cliffhanger. The lack of change – or even much challenge – in either the Congress or Legislature demonstrated again that redistricting works exactly the way its architects intended.”

If Block is willing, I’d be glad to come to his class and explain why Poizner’s campaign was endorsed by practically every major newspaper in the Bay Area – the San Francisco Chronicle calling this supposed bully-boy billionaire “one of the best prepared candidates that we ever interviewed.”

The special election doesn’t lack for reform ideas. Is it too late to tack on something about better journalism?

Bill Whalen is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

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