Poizner’s Businesslike Style Pays Political Dividends

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SACRAMENTO, CA — Some kids dream of being a firefighter or an
astronaut when they grow up. When a young Steve Poizner pondered his
future career, he was more practical: He would be an engineer and a

He then set out over the next several decades executing his
plan with a resolve that made him a top Silicon Valley entrepreneur,
culminating in the $1 billion sale of his business that puts GPS chips
in cell phones.

Now, after pivoting from a business career to the world of
politics, Poizner, 51, has trained his intensely-focused sights on a
run for governor in 2010. And political pundits say it’s not a fantasy
to think the moderate Republican from Los Gatos could succeed.

"He’s the type of Republican who wins statewide elections in California," said Republican strategist Dan Schnur.

"He’s a very smart and disciplined person," said Democratic
strategist Darry Sragow. "Democrats need to take a potential Poizner
candidacy seriously."

Poizner was elected in 2006 as the state insurance commissioner
and has emerged as a force in the GOP, arguably the state’s second most
powerful Republican after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He hasn’t
officially declared plans to run for governor, but at the same time
almost encourages the mounting speculation he will.

As a social moderate and fiscal conservative, Poizner’s
challenge will be to woo conservatives in a primary election without
alienating independents and Democrats he’ll need to win a general

Given that mandate, political experts called his high-profile
opposition to the term limits initiative — which voters rejected
earlier this month — a political masterstroke. The move, they said,
could boost his stature among Republican activists but probably not
cost him much support on the left. Poizner spent $2.5 million to help
defeat the measure.

Other issues could put him in more of a bind. Asked for his
views on the landmark 2006 bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions —
embraced by Democrats and Schwarzenegger but opposed by conservatives
who said it would hurt the economy — Poizner said he hasn’t studied it
enough to offer a position.

Poizner is similarly vague about how he would tackle the
state’s huge budget deficit, saying he favors an audit to eliminate
wasteful spending and would oppose raising taxes until it’s done.
Schwarzenegger tried basically the same idea with little to show for

"I have no doubt he’s a smart guy, but he’s not ready for prime
time," said Steve Maviglio, longtime Democratic adviser and spokesman
for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, the main proponent of
the term limits measure.

This much is clear: Poizner has the money to spread his message
— and he’s shown a willingness to spend it. Since 2004, he’s tapped
about $24 million of his fortune for various campaigns.

"I really don’t view it as anything other than part of our community service, to educate voters," Poizner said of his spending.

That Poizner — a slightly built, mild-mannered man with a black
belt in Shotokan karate — has emerged as perhaps the leading
Republican contender for governor comes as a surprise to many who know
him well. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Houston, the
youngest of four gifted children whose parents — a geologist and a
teacher — preached the importance of education but weren’t political.

Poizner was drawn to computers and technology as early as he
can remember. He liked "hanging out at Radio Shack" and assembling
electronic kits and building lasers. In one experiment, when he was
just 10, he wired his house with sensors so he could monitor everyone’s

"It drove my family crazy," Poizner said. "I did a lot of fun stuff."

Kevin Smith, who met Poizner in his teens when they were ushers
at a movie theater, remembers a "straight arrow" who, unlike a lot of
his peers growing up in the 1970s, was courteous to adults and lacked a
rebellious streak. But what stood out most was how self-directed
Poizner was.

"He seemed more focused on moving ahead in life and getting the
kinds of degrees he was interested in than most kids and, frankly, many
adults," Smith said. "He embodied the idealism of a Boy Scout, which
wasn’t real popular at the time." (In fact, Poizner was an Explorer

Poizner graduated from high school a year early, then enrolled
at the University of Texas, where his parents sent all four children
because the tuition fit the family budget. He excelled in and out of
class, leading the campus speaker’s committee and graduating as the top
male student with a 3.96 grade-point average.

He went straight from Texas to earn a master’s degree in
business at Stanford and, after a brief stint at a consulting firm,
launched a computer mapping company in his mid-20s.

Poizner built Strategic Mapping from two employees in 1983 to
about 160 in 1995, when he sold it for $35 million. It wasn’t long
before he was working on his next business.

His idea was to place GPS chips in cell phones so emergency
operators could pinpoint callers. He spent years refining the idea and
winning regulatory approval, and in 2000, Poizner sold the company,
SnapTrack, for $1 billion. GPS chips are now in more than 300 million
cell phones.

While Poizner grasped the technology, his main role in both ventures was not on the technical side.

"I created the idea and put a team of people together, raised
the venture capital and then ran the company," he said. "One of my
biggest strengths is I know how to hire really smart people."

If Poizner was wealthy before he sold SnapTrack, the sale
propelled him to a stratospheric level. But he said the money didn’t
change him much. One person who met Poizner during a fellowship in
Washington, D.C., said they worked together for months before he
realized that Poizner was a multimillionaire.

"I’m not really interested in buying a bunch of yachts or
islands, it just doesn’t appeal to me," said Poizner, whose family
remained in the same house (a beautiful three-bedroom home in the Los
Gatos hills with breathtaking views, but modest by neighborhood
standards) after the sale. "I also don’t want to sit around and rest on
my laurels. I think about the next thing."

That next thing was politics, an unexpected turn. "He was
always interested in business," said Poizner’s older sister, Sharon P.
Cooper. He was the lone Republican in the house and was known as the
"Alex P. Keaton" of the family, she said, a reference to the future
businessman played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties."

But Poizner said his switch to politics wasn’t out of the blue,
noting his history of community service. In his 20s, for example, he
was involved in a successful court battle to allow women to join the
Palo Alto Jaycees.

Coming off the sale of SnapTrack, Poizner could have used his
wealth to be an instantly viable candidate. Instead, he spent a few
years building a candidate’s résumé: He volunteered as a high school
government teacher in East San Jose; co-founded a non-profit for
education reform; and won a prestigious White House fellowship.

But politics turned out to be much harder for Poizner than business. He was stung by one setback after another.

Ignoring political experts, Poizner ran for a seat in a heavily
Democratic Assembly district in 2004 and lost after spending almost $7
million of his own money. Months later he was forced to withdraw a
nomination to the Public Utilities Commission because his investments
created a conflict of interest. And soon after that, he pushed an
initiative to change how legislative districts are drawn, only to watch
it go down in defeat — after spending another $2.7 million.

But Poizner remained focused, and in 2006 he defeated former
Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to become insurance commissioner —
the only Republican other than Schwarzenegger to win statewide office.

Poizner’s performance so far hasn’t left a distinct impression
on people who pay attention to the office. What seems clear is that, in
keeping with his political philosophy, he wants to be known as a
centrist — someone who helps consumers without antagonizing the
insurance industry.

"I’m going to be tough as nails on bad actors," he said. "But
I’m not going to… criticize the entire insurance industry as a bunch
of scoundrels. I have a job to do to attract insurance companies to
California, so consumers have more choices."

Straddling that consumer-industry divide can be tricky.
Consumer rights icon Harvey Rosenfield criticized Poizner last year
after he appointed a former insurance lobbyist as a top aide. He then
veered the other way, hiring two lifelong Democrats as advisers.

Amy Bach, a longtime consumer advocate with United Policyholders, has generally been impressed with Poizner.

After the Southern California fires last year — Poizner’s
biggest test so far — he convened meetings with people who lost their
homes. Many angrily blamed their insurers for selling policies that
didn’t cover replacement values, but Bach said Poizner resisted
pressure to offer empty promises. And he privately met with consumer
advocates and insurance executives to better understand the problem.

"He wouldn’t have done that," Bach said, "if he just wanted to do something for show and get press."
Contact Mike Zapler at [email protected] or (916) 441-4603.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdoghttps://consumerwatchdog.org
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