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Poizner runs a rocky path to governor’s race

He has pledged to run the state more efficiently if elected governor, but staff turmoil and lingering troubles with his inaugural fund are roiling the nascent campaign of state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

With the Republican primary still 13 months away, Poizner, a leading contender, is on his third campaign manager. Several top advisors have bowed out or taken diminished roles.

The instability in his campaign’s upper ranks comes as the fund that Poizner set up to pay for his 2007 inaugural festivities is emerging as a potential millstone for the Silicon Valley mogul. The nonprofit Poizner Inaugural Fund spent more than $375,000, much of it on celebrations in San Jose and Sacramento.

But that included nearly $150,000 in bills that Poizner left unpaid, the bulk of them for more than two years, until The Times inquired about them. Poizner, who made a vast fortune as a pioneer in mobile-phone tracking devices, wrote personal checks last week to cover the balance.

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“It’s like anything else: You’ve got some clients who pay quicker than others,” said Wayne Johnson, a political consultant whose firm recovered $38,625 from Poizner’s inaugural fund last week for bills that it submitted in early 2007.

The fund’s delays in paying its lawyers, accountants and consultants give rivals an easy line of attack against a multimillionaire candidate who vows to run a state with chronic fiscal troubles “as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Poizner said he had hoped to raise enough money to repay the vendors, but the fund reported only two donations over the last two years: $25,000 from the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and $50,000 from Mainstay Business Solutions, a firm owned by the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe.

“It hasn’t been the highest priority in the world, so now it’s gotten old enough that I think it’s not worth trying to raise money for anymore,” Poizner said Tuesday in an interview.

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Also problematic for Poizner, politically if not legally: The inaugural fund accepted two contributions from insurance donors despite his 2006 pledge to refuse the industry’s money if he was elected commissioner. To take it “would be like refereeing a game while being on one of the teams’ payroll,” Poizner told guests at his inaugural luncheon.

But a day earlier, Poizner’s inaugural fund accepted $5,000 from the California Assn. of Health Plans, a trade group whose members include Aetna, Blue Shield of California, CIGNA HealthCare of California Inc., and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. Five weeks later, the fund accepted $1,000 from AIMS Acclamation Insurance.

Poizner, whose policy of refusing insurance industry donations has won praise from consumer advocates, said Tuesday that he would return the money. “I don’t want to have any connection at all with the insurance industry,” Poizner said. “When it’s time for me to really come down hard on the insurance industry as the regulator . . . it’s important for me to do that.”

Harvey Rosenfield, a consumer advocate who endorsed Poizner for insurance commissioner, described the inaugural fund as improper, even if it is legal. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other officials have set up similar funds.

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“No public official should ever maintain a sort of off-the-books entity that collects money from donors, whether that elected official regulates them or not,” said Rosenfield, who now sees Poizner’s record on consumer protection as mixed.

Poizner’s inaugural fund, which also covered costs of his transition into office, disclosed the names of donors who gave $5,000 or more in reports to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, as required by law. Poizner released additional details of its finances after a request from The Times.

Donors include Applied Materials ($15,000); the California Retailers Assn. ($10,000); Watson Land Co., Lack Construction Inc., Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and the California Autobody Repair Political Action Committee ($5,000 apiece).

The fund’s main expenses included the inaugural luncheon for more than 500 guests at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, and a reception for 150 in Sacramento. Catering, entertainment, flowers and hall rental cost at least $62,712.

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Poizner, who wrote $147,500 in personal checks to close the books, said it was “time to just get that done and move on.”

Poizner is also trying to move on from a major staff shake-up. His campaign chairman, Jim Brulte, told supporters in February that Poizner had put together “a top-notch group of experienced and successful California professionals, including Wayne Johnson and Matt Rexroad.”

Johnson, a top Poizner strategist for years, stepped aside weeks later.

Rexroad, a veteran Sacramento consultant brought in to replace Poizner’s first campaign manager, Brian Seitchik, also departed. Rexroad ceded the job to James Bognet, a policy specialist who has worked on multiple campaigns but never managed one.

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Also gone from Poizner’s team is Marty Wilson, a Schwarzenegger campaign veteran. Poizner’s lead strategist now is Stuart Stevens, a prominent Republican media consultant in Washington. Stevens, a top campaign advisor to former President George W. Bush, has run governors’ races across the nation, but never in California. “It’s not been a stable environment,” Wilson said of Poizner’s inner circle. “God knows they’ve got plenty of time to correct the course, as long as Steve puts in place a professional team that he will trust to do their jobs and listen to their advice.”

Early turnover on a campaign team is often less of a problem than later upheaval. But for Poizner, the loss of nearly every seasoned California operative on his campaign could pose challenges.

“It takes a lot of luck and money and intelligence and timing, and heaven knows what else,” USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said. “But it can be done.”

As part of the campaign shuffle, Poizner has recruited several veterans of former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s campaigns, including Stevens and Bognet.

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Asked about his rapid shift in campaign advisors, Poizner said, “I’ve got to tell you, honestly, I am so pleased with where my campaign is right now.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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