Win or lose in November, Steve Poizner already has made history.
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 (NPP) independents, now 25.5 percent.
Cue the sound of the late president Reagan whirling in his Simi Valley resting place.
“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. “And if I do, it’ll be a very disruptive thing, in a positive way.”
First, however, the new champion of nonpartisan politics faces a big, awkward political obstacle: his own words and record as a slashing partisan Republican.
The Backstory. 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 backed a controversial Arizona law requiring people to carry proof of citizenship or legal status.
“I wish I had the 2010 campaign to do over again,” said Poizner, who changed his registration early this year, “because I no longer think my views [expressed then] on what to do with undocumented folks make any sense. And I regret it.”
And in This Corner. Alas for Poizner, his harbinger of Trump’s 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 Garofoli. “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 my questions seeking his views about the current occupant of the White House.
Q: “You have a problem with Trumpism?”
A: “I wouldn’t put it that way. 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 or 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.
“There’s no room for partisan politics at the Department of Insurance,” he said.