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Democrats open door for a GOP gov. in 2010

The Democrats’ fumbling of their term-limits proposal has increased the once-unfathomable possibility that California’s next governor will be another Republican.

That Republican would be state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, 50, who made a fortune in the dot-com boom and then turned his attention to politics. He’s currently pretty obscure, but you’ll be hearing a lot from him on talk radio and in TV commercials as he leads the campaign against Proposition 93, the Democrats’ legislative term-limit initiative on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot.

Sensing Proposition 93’s vulnerability, Poizner is seizing an opportunity provided by Democratic errors to expand his name recognition and jockey into good position to run for governor.

It’s far too early to speculate about the 2010 gubernatorial race. But that doesn’t stop us political junkies.

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Some Democrat still must be considered the favorite to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. After all, this is a “blue state.” The only Republicans frequently mentioned as possible candidates have been state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, who’s idolized by party activists but is far too conservative for the California electorate, and the bland Poizner, who labels himself a moderate.

Funny thing about bland politicians in this go-go state. Voters tend to warm up to them. The three governors who preceded Schwarzenegger were bland. Who knows, after two terms of a high-velocity celebrity governor, Californians may be ready for a more subdued style of leadership.

All the prospective Democratic candidates carry some baggage.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suffers from personal scandal. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom easily won reelection last week, but is the McClintock of the left. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi’s fundraising ability never has matched his political ambitions. Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell not only is bland, but a one-issue candidate. Treasurer Bill Lockyer isn’t sure himself whether he’s burned out. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, the consensus front-runner, is the epitome of a career politician. Will voters really want to bring him back for a third term as governor?

Myself, I prefer multi-term political careerism. Sorely needed in Sacramento are the legislating experience and policy knowledge -- from the governor down to the freshman chairman of an Assembly committee -- to fashion a painful but practical solution to a knotty problem, such as a persistent budget deficit.

Too much of legislators’ time is spent plotting their next political move after they’re termed out. Term limits don’t stop political careerism. They just perpetuate the game of musical chairs.

Proposition 93 would reduce the total years someone could be a legislator from 14 to 12, but allow all to be served in one house. Currently, lawmakers are permitted just three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year stints in the Senate.

There’s an unfortunate self-serving provision, however, in Proposition 93, which purports to be a “citizens’ initiative” but actually is sponsored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and backed by Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland). That sweetheart deal would allow current lawmakers to serve 12 years in their present house, no matter how many they already had spent in the other house. So some members, including Perata, could wind up serving more total years in the Legislature than the 14 currently permitted.

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Legislators are human too. And given human nature, it’s probably too much to expect that they’d craft a term-limits measure that didn’t benefit them personally.

“Then the heck with them,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races. “They got too cute. It turned out to be nothing but ‘me, me, me.’ ”

That was one fumble.

A bigger one was going the initiative route, rather than trying to finesse a bipartisan measure through the Legislature with Schwarzenegger’s support. That would have made it tougher to mount an opposition attack and probably have kept Poizner from committing his pocketbook.

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Poizner announced last week that he was dedicating $1.5 million of his own wealth -- chump change for him -- plus “whatever it takes” to kill Proposition 93.

“A smart move,” says veteran GOP strategist Ken Khachigian. “He makes nice with Republicans, who will end up opposing term-limit extension. It will help with his conservative credentials. Part of it is working to block Tom [McClintock].”

A head-scratcher for some is why Republican voters are the measure’s strongest supporters, based on polls. The answer is they’re confused and think that legislators -- mostly Democrats -- would be punished if their total years were reduced. The attorney general’s ballot title and summary stresses the overall reduction and de-emphasizes the sweetheart deal.

“I wouldn’t be leading the charge with my money and passion unless 93 was written to fool voters,” Poizner says. “It’s deceiving, it’s self-serving, it’s a naked power grab.”

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The latest Field Poll shows Proposition 93 still ahead, 49% to 31%, but losing support fast.

The initiative wasn’t helped by the disclosure that Nunez has spent lavishly from various special interest-fed political pots for luxurious travel and pet charities.

But the Democrats’ biggest fumble was reneging on their promise to produce a redistricting reform that surrendered the Legislature’s gerrymandering power. Democratic leaders made that pledge in 2005 when beating back a redistricting measure championed by Poizner.

The original idea this year was to pair redistricting and term-limit reforms on the Feb. 5 ballot. That bipartisan package would have been endorsed by Schwarzenegger. But Democrats failed to deliver, presumably balking at giving up redistricting without being assured of term-limits liberalization.

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“There’s a legitimate debate to be had about modifying term limits that I’d be happy to enter into,” Poizner says. “But not without redistricting reform.”

It would be ironic and fitting if the Democrats’ next gerrymander in 2011 was vetoed by a Republican governor they helped create, Steve Poizner.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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