Meg Whitman is an extortionist. Steve Poizner is insane. Jerry Brown is laughing his head off.

The first, nasty exchange of the campaign for the Republican nomination for governor erupted this week, as Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner asked the FBI, the U.S. Attorney, and state Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate rival and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman for possibly criminal actions in trying to force him out of the race.

Capitol Letters

Whitman’s campaign immediately fired back, calling into question Poizner’s “mental condition” and saying he’d blown out of proportion a back-channel effort to suggest he drop out of a race he is trailing badly.

As a political matter, the only clear beneficiary of the sudden, and unusually sharp, intraparty exchange appeared to be Brown, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, who’s quietly raising money for the general election and hoping to stay above the fray while the two extremely wealthy GOP contenders launch mutual, brutal attacks financed by their personal fortunes.

“A Republican family feud is always good news for Democrats who don’t have a primary,” Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, who is not working in the governor’s race, told the Sacramento Bee. “The big winner today is Jerry Brown.”

The action started early Monday, when Poizner summoned reporters to his campaign headquarters for a “major announcement.” Many reporters assumed this meant he was dropping out of the race; although he is the only Republican statewide officeholder besides Governor Schwarzenegger, Poizner is running 30 points behind billionaire Whitman, who already has spent an extraordinary $19 million in her bid for the nomination, nearly a year before the general election.

But quitting isn’t what Poizner had on his mind.

Citing private emails sent by Whitman senior consultant Mike Murphy to one of Poizner’s consultants, the insurance commissioner thundered that the Whitman adviser’s actions represented an illegal effort to deprive voters of their right to have a choice in an election, if not political extortion.

One email said Whitman would “tear up” Poizner unless he dropped out of the race; if he did quit, Murphy said, Whitman would help unify the GOP behind him to run for the U.S. Senate.

“Is there anything we can do to get SP to reconsider this race?” Murphy wrote. “I hate the idea of us each spending $20 million beating on the other in the primary, only to have a damaged nominee. And we can spend $40 million-plus tearing up a guy with great future statewide potential.”

“We could unite [the] entire [Republican] Party behind Steve right now to build a serious race against Dianne Feinstein in 2012,” Murphy added.

Brandishing the document, and his letters to law enforcement, Poizner charged, “They’re trying to cancel the election, effectively. This is an attempt to effectively manipulate the elections process, the integrity of the election process, by issuing these threats behind-the-scenes to get me not to run.”

Responding on behalf of Whitman, Murphy called into question Poizner’s sanity: “After reading the ridiculous charges made by Steve Poizner during today’s strange news conference, all I can say is that I’m starting to worry about the commissioner’s mental condition.”

Murphy said his actions were nothing more than ordinary political tactics: “Hopefully the commissioner was not serious about wasting taxpayer dollars by asking state and federal authorities to waste their time on such a silly matter of perfectly legal politics.” Murphy said if there was an investigation, however, he would cooperate fully.

There were no injuries.

For the record: Capitol Letters reported last week about former member of the state Assembly Hannah-Beth Jackson’s enlistment as a political consultant with the Environmental Defense Center in its effort to gain approval for the controversial Tranquillon Ridge oil drilling project off the coast of Santa Barbara. Several readers and commenters on The Indy’s Web site later stated that Jackson was a “lobbyist” for the project.

In California, “lobbyist” is a legal term referring to someone who officially registers with the state because they meet several specific criteria in working to influence legislation; one of these is that they make at least $5,000 in a calendar quarter doing so. I asked Jackson whether she was now a registered lobbyist and she emailed this response: “In response to your question, I’m not a registered lobbyist and have not ‘spent’ (or received) 5K from any clients at this point for such work. It is my intention to work primarily as a strategic consultant, unless that is too unrealistic and I end up meeting the definition of lobbyist. At this point, however, I’m not in that category.”


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