Poochigian to Run as 'Anti-Jerry Brown'

Never mind that nine of 10 Californians have not heard of him. Never mind that his opponent enjoys blanket name recognition throughout the Golden State, more campaign cash and a double-digit lead in the polls.

Chuck Poochigian -- state senator from Fresno, a conservative Republican with a tough record on crime and punishment -- has a blueprint for beating Jerry Brown in the race for California attorney general.

He wants to run against Gov. Moonbeam.

Poochigian plans to cite Brown's progressive past as well as his iconoclastic pronouncements during a 1990s stint on talk radio. He wants to spotlight Brown's record as mayor in crime-rattled Oakland. He will rail against Brown's personal distaste for the death penalty. He hopes to reap campaign dollars from corporations fearful that Brown would push a litigious, anti-business agenda.

"For me, the greatest challenge will be to overcome his high name identification," said Poochigian, 57. "His greatest challenge is to overcome his record. I can move my name ID up. He can't change his record."

So far, Brown is enjoying a splendid campaign season. Though Poochigian got a free ride in the June 6 primary, running unopposed, Brown crushed Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, 63% to 37%, to earn the Democratic nomination.

Brown, 68, did it by portraying himself as a hard-knuckle, big-city crime fighter -- not the long-gone governor who jousted in the 1970s with the Medfly, put death penalty antagonist Rose Bird on the state Supreme Court, renounced the gubernatorial mansion for a floor mattress, dated singer Linda Ronstadt and acquired the nickname of Gov. Moonbeam.

"If they want to run this campaign by going back to 1974, they're welcome to," said Ace Smith, Brown's political strategist. "But I think their strategy is about 20 years stale."

Though one recent poll put Poochigian down by 25 percentage points in a head-to-head contest with Brown, the Republican's campaign team remains confident that the race will become a tossup by election day.

Poochigian is counting on unified support among the GOP, which embraced the popular Fresno Republican early on. Though an unabashed conservative, he also hopes to win big among California's growing pack of independent voters, now more than 18% of the electorate.

Plus, "Poochigian is the anti-Jerry Brown," said Kevin Spillane, a strategist for the GOP candidate.

Brown was born into the closest thing California has to political royalty, the son of a popular governor, Pat Brown, who served through most of the 1960s. Poochigian was raised on the farm, by parents who never went to college.

He is a native of Lone Star, a no-pretense speck of a place along the railroad tracks southeast of Fresno. His grandparents fled the Armenian genocide, and the family eventually settled amid the grape fields of Fresno County.

His mother still lives on the family's original 20-acre plot. Poochigian's father died two years ago at 90. One brother manages a farm. Poochigian owns farmland around Fresno County, and sent his three children to the same public schools he attended.

Unlike Brown, who seemed fated for elected office, Poochigian came to politics relatively late in life.

At Fresno State he was a buddy of Bill Jones, a budding campus politician who in the 1990s was elected California secretary of state. Poochigian later attended law school and became a business lawyer. He got the political bug in 1978, volunteering for George Deukmejian's successful run for attorney general. Poochigian later was appointed as a gubernatorial aide to the conservative Deukmejian and Gov. Pete Wilson.

Brown won statewide office at 32, becoming secretary of state, and launched the first of three presidential runs before he was 40. Poochigian didn't run for anything until his mid-40s.

He won an Assembly seat in 1994 and moved to the Senate in 1998, earning plaudits as a collegial straight-shooter, a law-and-order conservative capable of the occasional bipartisan compromise.

During his tenure, he has backed tougher penalties for sexual predators, gun-toting felons and identity thieves. He also has opposed legislative efforts to roll back the state's "three strikes" law.

Now he is following in the footsteps of his early mentor, Deukmejian, a fellow Armenian American whose first statewide job was as California's so-called top cop.

He wants to be attorney general, Poochigian said, to help crime victims and aggressively uphold the state's death penalty law.

Poochigian has earned support and campaign contributions from the Central Valley's large Armenian community, agribusiness, developers like Alex Spanos -- whose family donated more than $30,000 -- and a few celebrities, including more than $10,000 from tennis star Andre Agassi and billionaire businessman Kirk Kerkorian, a Fresno native.

Even with such support, he admittedly faces an uphill fight against Brown, who remains a political luminary nearly three decades after he last held a statewide office. Brown's presence in the race has attracted national attention, with Time magazine and the New York Times running articles spotlighting his maverick past and latest political metamorphosis but with virtually no mention of Poochigian.

"There's no way in the world that Chuck Poochigian is going to be as well known as Jerry Brown by Election Day," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst. "But he doesn't need to be, as long as he's seen as credible. This election will be a referendum on Jerry Brown."

But most voters today don't remember the long-ago days the same as Republican activists who "just drool at a chance to take out Jerry Brown," countered Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist.

Sragow contends that Poochigian might need $10 million in TV time to overcome Brown's early lead. For now, Brown holds a campaign cash edge over Poochigian of $4.4 million versus $3.2 million.

Brown's record in Oakland may matter more than his gubernatorial stint between 1974 and '82, Sragow said. "He's done a lot of things since 1982, most recently a good job as mayor of a city that's pretty tough to govern."

Poochigian plans to attack Brown on both his past and his present.

His campaign has a hit list of Brown's pronouncements over the years, many uttered on Bay Area talk radio. Brown often railed against capital punishment, saying that it put the state at risk of seeming "like Hitler's Germany," and dubbed the U.S. prison system a gulag. He called corporate America "an out-of-control Frankenstein" and a "legal fiction backed up by guns and police and jail cells."

"Playing the role of a shock jock doesn't excuse it," Poochigian said. "When you're a public figure, when you've run for president of the United States and been a two-term governor, you've got a higher level of responsibility."

Poochigian, who is eager to lure fence-sitting voters worried about crime, also has questioned Brown's law enforcement performance in Oakland.

Brown's campaign team likes to say that during Brown's tenure felonies plummeted more than 30% compared to those during the terms of prior Oakland mayors.

But in recent years the city has experienced an upward drift in felonies, culminating in 2006 with a big jump in homicides.

So far this year, Oakland has had 61 homicides -- more than in all of 1998, Brown's first year as mayor. In 2005, the city led the state in per capita crimes and finished second to Sacramento in percentage increase of crime.

"The more the truth comes out about Jerry Brown, his record, his history and his ideology, the higher my standing," Poochigian said. "I benefit from people knowing about his judicial appointments, his harsh condemnation of criminal justice and opposition to the death penalty."

Brown's team isn't about to take any of this. Smith, who enjoys a reputation as a scrappy political pugilist, calls Poochigian a "partisan extremist" way to the right of California voters -- including the coveted independents and moderates in either party -- on issues like the environment, employee rights and abortion.

Throughout his career, Poochigian typically earned a 0% score from the League of Conservation Voters for backing weaker pesticide and air quality protections.

He also repeatedly opposed assault-weapon bans, voted against stem-cell research and supported liability exemptions for drug companies and medical firms that had been sued by injured patients.

"We're going to stand tall on Jerry Brown's record," Smith said. "He's the only person in this race with real-life experience fighting crime. We're not going to step back from that. We're going to make this race about a simple issue -- who do you want running the attorney general's office?"