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Ruminations on Steve Poizner’s investment

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner’s announcement that he’s putting another $15 million of his personal fortune into his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination got me thinking about all the money he’s shelled out in recent years.

Poizner in 1995 founded SnapTrack Inc., which pioneered technology putting global positioning system receivers into cell phones; he was the privately held company’s CEO until he sold it to Qualcomm in 2000 for a reported $1 billion. The current size of his fortune isn’t known, but he says he’s not a billionaire.

By my count, he spent $14,855,086.55 on his 2006 race for Insurance Commissioner, and $5,750,731.63 in his unsuccessful race for the 21st Assembly District seat in 2004. He also put $2.25 million into 2005’s unsuccessful Proposition 77, a redistricting measure, and $3.3 million into the campaign against the unsuccessful Proposition 93 of 2008, which would’ve tinkered with term limits.

That’s $26,155,818.18. Add in the $19.2 million so far for the gubernatorial race – $4.2 million earlier, and then yesterday’s commitment – and that’s $45,355,818.18 that Poizner has spent out of his own pocket on California politics since the start of 2003.

Does that make him a record-setter? Nope.

Real estate heir/movie mogul Stephen Bing has spent $56,158,544.14 on California campaigns since 2003, the lion’s share of which – $49,558,000 – was in support of the unsuccessful Proposition 87 of 2006, which would’ve imposed a tax on oil produced in the state to fund alternative energy research and development.

As for candidates, Democrat Al Checchi, defeated by Gray Davis in the 1998 gubernatorial primary, spent more than $40 million out of his own pocket in that race alone. And Steve Westly put $35.2 million of his own money into his losing battle for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, four years after he’d spent $5,193,000 into winning the state Controller’s office.

So Poizner’s spending isn’t unprecedented — yet. Neither Checchi nor Westly nor Poizner in previous campaigns faced a candidate more affluent, more able to self-fund than himself, as Poizner now faces in Meg Whitman.

Whitman was President and CEO of eBay from March 1998, when it had 30 employees and annual revenue of about $4 million, to March 2008, when it had about 15,000 employees and annual revenue of about $8 billion. Her net worth has been estimated at about $1.3 billion. She has put $19.02 million into her own campaign so far, and says she’s ready and willing to spend $50 million.

Money talks; as Checchi, Westly and Bing will tell you, it doesn’t always win. But if Poizner and Whitman actually match their self-funding pace through June’s primary, it could be a one-on-one clash of the moneyed titans unlike California has ever seen – with the winner then pivoting to show down against one of the most well-known and prolific fund raisers that Democrats could possibly field.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Wee weed

    Steve is in it to win it.

  • Could politics in this state possibly be any more broken than it is?

    Hm. I probably shouldn’t ask that. But what a mess.

  • Ron Dougherty

    This is why I support Tom Campbell. His gubernatorial candidacy will positively impact California. His leadership and knowledge are unsurpassed. And he not buying the office.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    Tom Campbell, wonderful as he may be, is even more yesterday’s news than Jerry Brown. Look for an endorsement from Ron Paul or even Ralph Nader.