COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Will we see another GOP billionaire next election?

The moment one election ends, all politicians’ thoughts naturally turn to the next one. And California’s next vote, the 2014 run for governor — which has already informally begun — could be completely unique.

There’s the good chance current Gov. Jerry Brown will try for a second term in his second coming. That would be a fourth overall.

If the 74-year-old Brown opts to slip quietly into retirement — not the sort of thing that’s in his nature — Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stands panting in the wings, ready to jump in. No doubt, Brown will tantalize Newsom, the two-term San Francisco mayor and son of a close associate of Brown’s father, as long as he can, keeping him dangling in the wind as a sort of payback for an abortive 2010 primary election run in which Newsom sometimes suggested Brown was a has-been.

Of course, if Brown leaves, there could be plenty of Democratic primary competition for Newsom, starting with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Attorney General Kamala Harris and perhaps including state Controller John Chiang, who has developed a reputation as a rare sort of political straight shooter and a responsible fiscal steward not afraid of challenging even his own party mates in the Legislature.

But the chances are Brown will run again, leaving most of the others to play musical chairs among lesser statewide offices.

In several election-season talks, Brown alluded to California’s future, calling it “dynamic” and saying his moves during the last two years have created a solid “framework for a very good credit rating.” Brown’s clear implication was that he’ll want to be around to enjoy the fruits of his hard work in paring budgets and passing Proposition 30’s temporary tax increases.

One person who certainly would not be scared off by a Brown re-election drive is Molly Munger, who refused to knuckle under this year when Brown tried to get her to give up or compromise on her school tax plan, which turned into fall's Proposition 38. Billionaire Munger put about $20 million into the losing campaign for that one; imagine what she might spend on her own candidacy.

But the more interesting party in this nascent gubernatorial season may be the Republicans, who have no incumbents in statewide office and trail Democrats 44-29 percent in voter registration, with most other voters signed up with no party preference, today’s parlance for independent.

Ever since then-Attorney General Dan Lungren lost badly to Democrat Gray Davis in 1998, the GOP’s gubernatorial runs have been dominated by billionaires and near-billionaires. Its last three candidates for the state’s top job fell into that category: financier Bill Simon, muscleman actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and businesswoman Meg Whitman, now the CEO of the seemingly ever-downsizing Hewlett-Packard Co.

Whitman put about $150 million of her own funds into her 2010 run against Brown and lost handily.

But friends of 2002 loser Simon say he’s contemplating another run in spite of the evidence that to win, a billionaire needs a measure of celebrity to go along with all that cash. Schwarzenegger had both a big name and big money, while Whitman and her primary opponent, former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a near billionaire, for the most part had only big piles of cash.

Poizner now says he might run again. The former state insurance commissioner founded and then sold a company that invented and designed the GPS chip for cellphones. He’s spent most of the last two years setting up empowered.com, an adult-oriented job-training and counseling business in which he partners with UCLA, among others.

“I haven’t decided to run or not to run,” Poizner said.

Like other super-wealthy possibilities, he doesn’t have to decide soon, because fundraising is no problem for him. He can write a check for whatever amount might be needed.

Other Republicans thinking of running include Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, best known for getting arrested while trying to carry a gun onto an airplane, and John Cox, a real estate investor and former chairman of the Cook County Republican committee who now lives in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego.

So there will be no dearth of candidates. The wild card here may be the new top-two primary system, which got its first outing this year and saw more than 20 contests in which the runoff election matched candidates from the same party. Could the next contest pit Brown against Munger in an intraparty grudge match? Brown isn’t saying, but he may still resent Munger’s commercials disparaging Proposition 30, while Munger knows Brown killed off her rival plan.

That might be as bitter an election fight as California has seen, and it could happen.


Email Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to californiafocus.net.

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