With just 43 words, FitzGerald is poised to pull an upset in insurance commissioner primary



Republican Brian D. FitzGerald can tick off each of his campaign expenses from memory.

There are only three: a $2,800 filing fee to run for California insurance commissioner, $1,075 for a 43-word statement in the official California voter guide and a $350 round-trip Southwest Airlines ticket from the Bay Area to Los Angeles for an endorsement meeting with this news organization’s editorial board.

FitzGerald, 53, did not get The Times’ endorsement. He has, however, received the most votes so far in the GOP primary. He is clinging to a 5,388-vote margin that, if it holds as the remaining provisional and mail ballots are tallied, would mark one of most surprising political upsets in a generation.

“In 25 years of running campaigns in California, certainly at the statewide level, I cannot think of a precedent,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist.

FitzGerald’s showing was so unexpected that the chairman of the California Republican Party, Ron Nehring, issued a statement on election night welcoming FitzGerald’s better-known opponent, former Assembly GOP leader Michael Villines (R- Clovis), to the GOP ticket. Asked Thursday whether he had ever spoken to FitzGerald, Nehring chuckled for 10 seconds before saying, “I’m looking forward to getting to know him.”

A 16-year veteran lawyer in the state Department of Insurance, FitzGerald commutes from Napa, via ferry, to San Francisco each day. The father of two said he ran — this is his first ever bid for public office — because “what the department needs is a good administrator.”

“It was a long shot,” FitzGerald admitted, “given that I was not well known.”

His spending was so scant he did not have to file an electronic spending report; he has had no donors but himself. His state salary is roughly $113,000.

FitzGerald laid out his plainspoken “Mani-fitz-o,” as he called his platform on his blog, in the official voter guide at a cost of $25 per word.

It read, in its entirety: “Regulation of insurance concerns everyone. As Commissioner I will provide consumers protection and a fair and reasonably regulated marketplace. I am a dedicated public servant of 16 years seeking only to provide a stable Department, not use it for advancement to higher office.”

It came in three words over budget. He splurged on the extra $75.

Ballot statements don’t usually win elections for a candidate. FitzGerald has been the beneficiary of several cross-currents — maybe even a political perfect storm.

In a contest about which few voters knew more than what appeared on the ballot, Villines was listed as “businessman/state assemblyman.” FitzGerald was “department’s enforcement attorney.”

In an anti-incumbent year, that may have cost Villines precious votes in a contest that, as of Saturday, was split 50.2% to 49.8%. “Labeling yourself an Assembly member is not so good these days,” Sragow said.

Political graybeards recalled that the last relative no-name to upset a heavily favored statewide candidate ran in 1978. He was GOP gadfly James Ware of Los Angeles; he ousted Assemblyman Dixson Arnett of Redwood City in his bid for state controller. The upset occurred in the election in which voters passed the landmark Proposition 13 to keep property taxes in check.

In this year’s election, Villines spent more than $228,000, mostly on mail and advisors. He aired no TV or radio ads. Instead, he reserved half of his funds for the general election.

Meanwhile, GOP activists inflamed over Villines’ role in crafting a state budget last year that temporarily raised taxes had been urged by radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou to dump the better-known candidate. Villines lost badly in populous Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, where “The John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640) is broadcast.

“They contributed to that outcome — no doubt about it,” Nehring said.

FitzGerald, for his part, hopes his insurance experience made the difference among the 1.55 million votes counted in the commissioner race. “I thought that what might matter to the electorate was that I was qualified,” he said.