Poizner, Whitman both deploy exaggeration in attack ads

As a central theme of Meg Whitman’s many commercials attacking Steve Poizner, her Republican rival for governor, she has told voters that he helped to undercut Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that has kept property taxes in check.

“Steve Poizner joined with liberal unions to weaken Prop. 13 and raise your property taxes,” an announcer proclaims in one of a series of Whitman ads telling voters why they “can’t trust Steve.”

Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, has shot back with his own ads in which he pillories his opponent as “liberal Meg Whitman.”

“Whitman campaigned and contributed to Barbara Boxer. Did you?” intones a narrator in one Poizner ad. This is followed moments later by a clip of Whitman saying, “What I need to do is let Californians know what I stand for” and then a woman’s voice responding, “Oh, we know.”

With Poizner apparently shrinking Whitman’s once-formidable lead — according to private polls by both Democrats and Republicans — the barrage of ads has not slowed.

An examination of the facts shows that most of the charges on both sides are puffed up. The candidates’ profiles aren’t so different. Each has acted in the past as a fairly moderate, pragmatic Republican who supported Democrats while trying to make money in the business world.

Although both campaigns exaggerate, Whitman’s ads appear to stretch the truth more.

For example, in several commercials she erroneously accuses Poizner of increasing the Department of Insurance budget by 14% since taking over in January 2007; but her analysis includes a period before Poizner was in office and omits more recent, lower budget estimates.

Counting only the period in which Poizner was in office, the increase is nearly 9%, almost all of it from legally required surcharges that are mostly disbursed to local prosecutors and over which he has no control. Poizner has cut his budget recently, but some of the reductions were ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Whitman’s reference to Poizner undermining Proposition 13 involves $193,000 that Poizner gave in 2000 to support Proposition 39, which made it easier for voters to approve school construction bonds supported by property taxes. The measure reduced the approval threshold from two-thirds of those voting to 55%.

Whitman, the former chief of EBay, says in her ads that Poizner’s support of that initiative is a reason voters shouldn’t trust him. But she trusted former Gov. Pete Wilson, the honorary chairman of the Proposition 39 effort, enough to make him her campaign chairman. And she has refused to disavow Wilson’s own tax increases as governor.

Both Whitman and Poizner — who now says he’s changed his mind about the initiative — have said they would cut taxes if elected governor.

Although Proposition 39 had some union support, Whitman exaggerates by suggesting that Poizner was coordinating with labor leaders. The measure was largely financed by Silicon Valley technology executives — Poizner was one at the time — looking to improve their employee pool through education.

Whitman has a relationship with another of those executives, John Chambers, chairman of Cisco Systems. Chambers gave $520,000 to Proposition 39. He also backs Whitman for governor and wrote a letter with her and others endorsing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) for reelection in 2003. Whitman gave Boxer $4,000.

Poizner, whose ads say he offers “new conservative solutions,” has changed his own stands noticeably since he lost an Assembly race in a largely Democratic Silicon Valley district in 2004, when his own news releases noted that he’d been called “the left’s Republican.” His commercials liken Whitman now to moderate Republican Schwarzenegger. But Schwarzenegger stumped for Poizner in 2004. Poizner also criticizes Whitman for supporting taxpayer-funded abortion, which he previously supported.

In 2004, Poizner said he’d been a moderate Republican his entire life, referred to himself as a “maverick” who would take on his own party and refused to say whether he planned to vote for President George W. Bush for a second term.

Like Whitman, Poizner has aided Democrats. He donated $11,000 attempting to elect Al Gore president in 2000 and gave $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee that year, in a period when his company, SnapTrack, had obtained U.S. government patents and was seeking more. He gave $2,000 to U.S. Sen. John Kerry in 2001.

Both Republicans, who have donated to their own party members as well, have explanations for helping Democrats. Poizner blames his wife, Carol, a Democrat, though checks were written in his name. Whitman said Boxer was helping on technology legislation but did nothing else right, although Whitman was quoted in a 2003 news release while at EBay praising the senator as “a courageous leader.”

Records show that Whitman also gave to other Democrats in congressional races: Rep. Michael M. Honda of New York, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Kerry and Rep. Gary L. Ackerman of New York.

Whitman skirts the truth in an ad by saying that “when Republicans in Congress voted to cut income taxes, Poizner joined Nancy Pelosi and opposed the tax cut.” The vote on the Bush tax cuts came in 2003. According to a local newspaper editorial, Poizner made a statement criticizing them the next year, during his Assembly race.

Another Whitman commercial says: “Poizner actually praised President Bush’s plan to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.” Bush’s plan, which Poizner did support, according to news reports at the time, was for a guest-worker program, not for citizenship.

Poizner, who has taken a harder stance on immigration in this campaign, has his own ads on the issue that make exaggerated use of recent statements by Whitman: that illegal immigrants should “stand at the back of the line” and “pay a fine.” His ads compare those statements with President Obama’s similar assertions, and dub them the “Whitman-Obama policy” for amnesty.

Whitman, who doesn’t make such statements anymore, was also referring to a guest worker program, aides say.

Poizner uses hyperbole in saying, through his surrogate, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay), that Whitman will bring “more environmental extremism.” The charge is based on $300,000 in donations Whitman made to the Environmental Defense Fund to help protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and a 2008 cruise, called the “Arctic Expedition for Climate Action,” that she took with Jimmy Carter, former Obama environmental czar Van Jones and others.

In 2004, Poizner said he would work in the Legislature to fight global warming; now both candidates support suspending California’s 2006 law to fight climate change.

In one of his recent and most critical ads, Poizner highlights Whitman’s ties to Goldman Sachs, the now-troubled investment bank. He makes an unsupported claim: “With Goldman Sachs, Whitman invested heavily in vulture funds profiting from California foreclosures.”

Whitman invested millions with Goldman Sachs to make money off distressed companies, but Poizner’s campaign could provide no evidence that she profited from the firm’s investments in the subprime housing market. The commercial also highlights the money she made off the practice of selling initial public offering stocks to which she had special access — though it describes the practice as “outlawed,” when Wall Street firms agreed to stop in a settlement with securities regulators.

Poizner has also invested with Goldman, albeit not to the same degree as Whitman, and took a $500,000 loan from the company for his 2004 campaign.