Along the south shore of San Francisco Bay, from the bookstores of Palo Alto to the estates of Atherton, one man's checkbook has created an Assembly race where it otherwise wouldn't exist.
In a district dominated by Democrats, Republican Steve Poizner has spent $4.8 million of his own money -- writing checks of $100,000 or more to himself every week since August -- to pay for a blizzard of television ads and mailers, and has raised $1 million more.
Other California millionaires have tapped their fortunes while trying to get elected governor or controller, but nobody has ever spent so much of his own money to win a seat in the raucous, 80-member Assembly -- what's considered an entry-level job in Sacramento.
Poizner has spent so much that the Democrats who tally campaign contributions in key legislative races have stopped counting it and type "irrelevant" in the Poizner column.
Campaign workers for his Democratic opponent, Ira Ruskin, amuse themselves by figuring out what else Poizner's expenditures could have bought, such as a six-bedroom Mediterranean-style house with pool in Palo Alto or a GOP-logo shirt and hat for every Republican registered in the district -- all 77,000.
They might be wowed by Poizner's largess, but Democrats take him seriously and have poured more than $782,000 into Ruskin's campaign -- half of the $1.3 million he has raised since January.
At the same time, they say they are confident that presidential politics, which has heightened partisanship in the district, will work in favor of the candidate with the "D" beside his name. Four years ago, only 35% of district voters chose George W. Bush. Last year, 61% of voters rejected the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Poizner is "a Republican attempting to capture a seat that is safely Democratic in a district that, by a wide margin, is likely to vote for John Kerry and Barbara Boxer," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and publisher of the Target Book, which analyzes legislative races. "If Poizner wasn't spending enough money to make himself a household name, then no one would be taking his campaign seriously."
Democrats recognize the appeal of Poizner, a socially liberal, business-minded Republican in a region known for its universities and entrepreneurs. The district leans left -- voter registration is 45% Democratic and 31% Republican -- but has elected moderate Republicans in the past, such as former Assemblywoman Becky Morgan and former Rep. Tom Campbell.
Campbell notes that he was first elected to Congress in 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush was rejected by area voters.
Campbell said he was confident that Poizner would win because his brand of Republicanism -- which says government should be restricted to only what is necessary -- resonates with the many successful, self-made people in the district.
Poizner, of Los Gatos, won the endorsement of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News -- two newspapers that also endorsed Kerry.
"If you had to construct the ideal Republican to run in this district, it would be Steve Poizner," said Bill Whalen, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a paid policy consultant to Poizner. "He's like Arnold Schwarzenegger."
On Monday, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led a rally at a Menlo Park hotel for Poizner, casting him as an independent-minded candidate in the Schwarzenegger mold.
Like himself, the governor said, Poizner is an entrepreneur who has the money to resist the "special interests" inundating the capital.
"People are sick and tired of the typical politicians that work their way up through the halls of Sacramento," Schwarzenegger said. "But when they get in there, they're owned by the special interests. He's an outsider."
Schwarzenegger added: "This man, Steve Poizner, cannot be bought by the special interests. Let me tell you something.... He can laugh at the special interests when they say we're going to give you $25,000 for your campaign, and in return you do this or that for me."
Democrats don't deny that Poizner has a compelling story.
The 47-year-old Texan and Stanford business school graduate made his wealth founding a company that uses satellite technology to pinpoint the location of cellphone and pager users. The company, SnapTrack, was sold to Qualcomm for $1 billion in 2000.
Poizner then won a one-year White House fellowship in which he worked on anti-terrorism strategies. Back in California, he spent a year volunteering at a public school in a poor San Jose neighborhood, where he was named "rookie teacher of the year."
It's not just money that Poizner has invested in the race. Campaign staffers say he has knocked on 11,000 doors, met 7,000 voters and walked so many miles that he must now wear a knee brace.
In an echo of Schwarzenegger's campaign to replace Davis a year ago, Poizner touts himself as an independent-minded moderate who will rise above the partisan bickering in Sacramento.
"I don't come from the Chamber of Commerce," Poizner said. "I don't care about doing things that help businesses per se. I care about jobs. And I understand that it takes businesses wanting to come here and expand here to create jobs."
Poizner said he chose to run for the Legislature, rather than a statewide office, because it's the Legislature that deals directly with the two issues he cares most about: public education and the economy.
Poizner and his wife, a Democrat, are not happy about all the money they've put into his campaign, he said. But it's necessary to level the playing field in a district that was drawn by lawmakers to ensure the reelection of Democrats, Poizner said.
He called it "shameful" that lawmaker-drawn districts have eliminated the competition in all but a handful of the 100 legislative races this year.
"I want to outlaw gerrymandering," he said. "It's one of the most damaging things that's been done to this state."
Ruskin argues that he, not Poizner, holds values that better reflect the district, and the race will be decided not by money, but by issues.
"We have the budget to get our message out and to talk about the issues," Ruskin said. He draws distinctions between himself and Poizner. For example, Ruskin supported and Poizner opposed a bill to raise the minimum wage that was vetoed by Schwarzenegger.
And Ruskin favors Proposition 72, which would require employers to offer their workers health insurance. Poizner said he believed requiring businesses to provide health insurance would hamper job creation.
Ruskin, a Redwood City councilman and communications consultant, touts his experience in government, which included pushing for a state law requiring San Francisco to make repairs to the Sierra Nevada water system on which the region depends. He also helped establish a budget reserve for the city and a requirement that one-time revenues be spent on one-time expenses.
"We enabled Redwood City to much better withstand the economic downturn," Ruskin said. "Imagine where the state would be if those ... policies had been adopted by the state."
All the money at play in the race has paid for cable and network television ads and a daily barrage of mailers, most of them from Poizner.
"As one friend said to me, I feel like the guy's moved in with me," said Joe Simitian, the Democratic assemblyman who cleared the way for the race by stepping down to run for the state Senate. "He's on the TV, he's on my radio, he's in my mailbox; I can't get away from him."
Recently, Ruskin has challenged Poizner to say whether he will vote for Bush or Kerry for president. Poizner said his mind is made up, but he's not telling.
"A big part of [Ruskin's] strategy is to nationalize this race," Poizner said. "I'm not going to go there."
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Steve Poizner, the Republican candidate for a Bay Area Assembly seat, has spent $4.8 million of his own money on his race against Redwood City Councilman Ira Ruskin, a Democrat. The 10 most costly legislative races so far, based on money raised between Jan. 1 and Oct. 24:
Assembly District 21
Steve Poizner (R)$5.8 million
Ira Ruskin (D)$1.6 million
Senate District 5
Gary Podesto (R)$3.8 million
Mike Machado (D)$3.2 million
Senate District 15
Abel Maldonado (R) $1.6 million
Peg Pinard (D)$2.8 million
Assembly District 78
Shirley Horton (R)$1.9 million
Patty Davis (D)$1.7 million
Assembly District 30
Dean Gardner (R)$1.5 million
Nicole Parra (D)$1.7 million
Assembly District 54
Steve Kuykendall (R) $712,000
Betty Karnette (D)$1.4 million
Assembly District 80
Bonnie Garcia (R) $1 million
Mary Ann Andreas (D) $934,000
Assembly District 76
Tricia Hunter (R)$664,000
Lori Saldana (D)$1.1 million
Assembly District 17
Nellie McGarry (R)$425,000
Barbara Matthews (D) $954,000
Assembly District 53
Greg Hill (R)$449,000
Mike Gordon (D)$895,000
Does not include money from independent expenditure committees.
Source: Secretary of State