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The Great White Hope

Steve Poizner leads a motley group of Republicans into the November elections against a well-oiled Democratic machine

By William Dean Hinton

THE FUTURE OF South Bay Republicans is short and thin, with brown eyes and salty-brown hair, whose most offensive vocabulary seems to be limited to heck and gosh. He's a 47-year-old Texan, a millionaire, a former tech-company exec who taught high school government for a year in the rough-and-tumble East Side of San Jose. To prepare himself for political office, he spent 12 months in the Bush White House on a low-wage fellowship and has knocked on so many doors in his west-side district he reluctantly admits he's begun wearing braces to support his knees.

Steve Poizner is also one of few candidates running for office this November with the ability to hold an audience's interest during a 20-minute speech, lacing his policy positions with humorous anecdotes and dead-on statistical information. He's the only candidate who has written a 59-page pamphlet outlining his positions on topics as varied as the budget and the environment. The governor has endorsed him, and so has White House whistleblower Richard Clarke, for whom Poizner worked six months of his White House fellowship.

None of which means Poizner is the runaway favorite in Assembly District 21, which stretches from midpeninsula south of Belmont down to Los Gatos and the Almaden Valley. Poizner is Republican. But District 21, like all of the South Bay, is heavily Democratic.

Consider that the three congres-sional members who represent the South Bay, four out of five state senators, six out of seven assemblymembers, four out of five county supervisors and almost all the councilmembers from 15 city governments, not to mention 33 school boards, are Democrats. The only Republican reps to the state Assembly from this area are those whose districts include Morgan Hill and other parts south, not the valley proper. Sheriff Laurie Smith and District Attorney George Kennedy are Republicans, though Smith endorses Democratic candidates like Assemblywoman Sally Lieber.

Democratic dominance is so strong that many races are finished once primary season is over. Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling to field electable candidates. Marie Dominguez-Gasson, who is running in the 22nd Assembly District against incumbent Sally Lieber, is eager and well-spoken. But she's a political science major at Santa Clara University, not yet old enough to buy alcohol. Schoolteacher Chris Haugen, running against Anna Eshoo for a west-side congressional seat, is not a forceful presence on the stump. Last week, he unintentionally insulted the host of a Republican fundraiser by insinuating Eshoo was out of touch because she lived in the same neighborhood as the party's host.

The campaign of Raymond Chukwu, who is taking on powerful Rep. Mike Honda, got off to a poor start July 30 when he hosted a $100-per-plate fundraiser at the downtown Marriott ballroom for 200 supporters. Only 22 showed up, including his publicist, his wife and a reporter. The no-shows were blamed on the summer vacation season and a short invitation time frame. But during his speech, Chukwu said the obvious: "In their minds, they think this guy has no chance to win. Why go and waste our time?" Jon Zellhoefer is a fun-loving guy. He distributes campaign literature that looks like a Most Wanted poster and spends Thursday nights campaigning in a Scottish kilt at the King's Head Pub in Campbell. But he's competing for the District 11 state Senate seat opposite powerhouse Joe Simitian--a race expected to be so lopsided the San Jose Mercury News has already declared Simitian the winner, much to the anger of Zellhoefer's small campaign staff.

Which is why South Bay Republicans mention Poizner as the heir apparent to past GOP officeholders--Assemblyman Jim Cuneen (now with the San Jose Chamber of Commerce), Congressman Tom Campbell (now at UC-Berkeley business school) and state Senator Becky Morgan (part of Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team). All of them shared one thing in common: They were socially moderate and fiscally conservative, something the state GOP has rejected as it pursued more hard-line stances on gun control, abortion and immigration--a stance San Jose State University political scientist Terry Christensen likens to "suicide by dogma." "Republican alienation of minority voters through anti-immigrant, anti-minority ballot measures assures that they'll be a minority themselves indefinitely. California Republicans have been committing suicide by nominating social conservatives who can't pick up independent, Democratic or even moderate Republican votes."

Pariah in the Party

In 1950, the outlook was much different for the Santa Clara County GOP. Democrats still outnumbered registered Republicans, 52 percent to 44 percent, but the margins at least were close. By 2002, the numbers had changed to 45 percent registered Democrats and only 30 percent Republicans. The remainder? They decline to state a preference.

The rise of nonaffiliated voters has many explanations: "Alienation," Christensen says, "cynicism, better education, confusion, inability to choose, not seeing a difference between the parties, general anti-political attitudes--but also the decline of traditional socializing organizations that teach us partisanship--from unions to civic associations. In California, all that is exacerbated by the weakness of the party organizations, thanks to progressive reforms, nonpartisan local elections and so on."

The Democratic Party remains relatively strong mainly because of things beyond the control of the county GOP, whose moderate members outnumber conservatives. Right-wing Republicans in the state Assembly from areas south of Los Angeles and north of Marin write the state platform to make it reflect their views at the expense of moderates. "The cuckoo birds took over, and we started shoving old-line Republicans out of the nest," says Stanley Dickinson, executive director of the Santa Clara County Republicans, who is semiretired from the GOP after suffering a stroke last year.

Even so, the Santa Clara County Republicans have also been parochial and backward-looking. According to Tom Askeland, one of 24 members of the county's GOP Central Committee, Republicans tend to see the local party as a kind of country club, where the same members are expected to donate money again and again without attempts at outreach. Not only does the nonrecruitment inhibit new membership, he says, but it is also unattractive to those who do venture into committee meetings. "Many people don't want to sit around with old guys talking about the old days," he says.

According to Askeland, Santa Clara Republicans struggled to fill ballots in two Central Committee districts in the March primaries. He estimates the party has less than $30,000 in the bank and is often excluded from events scheduled by the state GOP. "We're the pariah in the state party," he says.

Santa Clara Democrats, on the other hand, are on cruise control. They have a 39-member Central Committee, a talk show on public-access television and an army of volunteers, helped by union members, ready to walk precincts and make campaign calls under an umbrella organization called United Democratic Campaign.

There are attempts both within the Republican county party structure and outside to make the party more like the Democratic machine. Charles Marsala is an Atherton councilmember who has connections to a number of youth-oriented Republican clubs such as League 21, SPARC and California Young Republicans. Originally from New Orleans, Marsala is trying to bring fun back to the party by hosting Republican events at his home, allowing conservatives and moderates to discuss their differences over barbecue and cocktails. "We're finding we have more and more commonality," he says. "It's that New Orleans atmosphere that does it. It's a less stressful environment."

The drawback to any new Republicanism is the party platform, which moderates say must be amended if the reputation of the party is going to improve with voters. "We're so hung up in the social area that we've gone away from old Republican values," says Dickinson, the county GOP director. "We need to get back to smaller government, a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility."

That job was made more difficult with the redistricting after the 2000 census. As Steve Poizner points out in his campaign speeches, the California Assembly has gerrymandered districts to favor one party over the other throughout the state. He distributes a map of two congressional districts to make his point, one called the Democratic Ribbon of Shame (the 23rd District, from Oxnard to San Luis Obispo), the other the Republican Rainbow of Shame (the 47th District, around Anaheim). "You get extremists who dominate the whole process," Poizner says. "The left wing from one party, the right wing from the other."

On the stump, Poizner sounds like neither--his campaign literature is sufficiently neutral: "Reformers for Poizner." But he says he's not running away from the GOP, only hard line conservatives. "I'm not part of the right-wing part of the party," he says. "I think government should stay out of the private lives of its citizens."

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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