The battle of the billionaires in the California Republican gubernatorial primary was turning into a bit of snooze. But suddenly, out of the blue, the race has become replete with racists and calls to the FBI alleging illegal campaign tactics.
Billionaire former tech company executive Steve Poizner has been trailing in the polls to billionaire former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman. Both candidates have more than enough money to pay for a top-notch campaign out of their own pockets. So it was maybe a bit ironic that Poizner held a press conference yesterday to accuse Whitman of, among other things, threatening to leverage her fortune to “destroy him” if he doesn’t agree to drop out of the race. Poizner waved an email from celebrity pundit and Whitman adviser Mike Murphy he said proved the plot. He’s handed over the evidence to law enforcement. On Tuesday an FBI spokesperson told me, “I’m not touching that” when asked for comment on the situation. That came a day after Murphy wondered in the press if Poizner had literally gone crazy.
We should have known this would happen — ain’t no party like a West Coast party, as a wise man once said.Poizner alleges that Whitman is trying to force him out of the race. The email, posted on Poizner’s website, is a request from Mike Murphy to a redacted official in the Poizner campaign floating a deal where Poizner would drop out in exchange for Whitman’s support in a Poizner run against against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) in 2012.
“I hate the idea of us each spending $20 million beating on the other in the primary, only to have a damaged nominee,” the email reads. “And we can spend $40M+ tearing up Steve if we must; bad for him, bad for us and a crazy waste to tear up a guy with statewide potential — really the only guy on the CA GOP bench for the future.”
In the press conference Monday, Poizner said the email broke the law, calling the message “extortion.” He’s sent copies of the email to federal and state law enforcement officials asking them to review it. But when I called the Poizner campaign Tuesday, the story was a little different.
“It definitely crosses an ethical line,” campaign spokesperson Jarrod Agen said. “It’s up to the authorities to see if it crossed a legal line.”
“We’re not legal experts,” Agen told me.
The experts aren’t talking. When I called the FBI in Sacramento, a spokesperson confirmed his office had received the letter but declined further comment. A lawyer at the California Attorney General’s office said her office was “reviewing” the letter, but added that “reviewing” is not the same as “investigating.”
As for Murphy, he took to the Internet, skewering Poizner in a sharply-worded statement posted to the Whitman campaign website. Murphy said the email came in response to a request from a Poizner confidant, who told him Poizner’s advisers were getting nervous in the face of Whitman’s growing popularity.
“After reading the ridiculous charges made by Steve Poizner during today’s strange press conference, all I can say is that I’m starting to worry about the Commissioner’s mental condition.”
Neither Murphy nor the Whitman campaign responded to requests for comment.
Agen says the Poizner campaign will continue to discuss the email. He called on Whitman to explain what role she had in Murphy sending it. “The onus is on her now, ” she said.
Agen wouldn’t rule out using the emails in future advertisements, either. He said that the lagging polls will pick up as Poizner begins to spend money as the June 8 primary approaches.
Democrats also jumped on the story. “This extortion attempt is only the latest display of arrogance and lack of character on candidate Whitman’s part,” California Democratic party chair John Burton said in a statement. “This is clearly someone who is used to having things her own way and has come to rely on her vast wealth to buy off any and all opposition.”
If the story catches fire, national observers finally have something to tune in for in California again. The early national scrutiny of Whitman’s (to put it generously) spotty voting record gave way to a campaign where Whitman took the early lead and kept it. Nothing to write home about there. The Democratic side was interesting for a while, but after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s sudden departure from the Democratic primary, the nomination quickly became California Attorney General Jerry Brown’s to lose.
Before Poizner’s presser, Whitman’s camp was doing it’s best to make things interesting again. Last week, Whitman had to distance herself from one of her supporters, Santa Clarita councilman Bob Kellar, after he was caught on video proclaiming himself a “proud racist.”
For outside observers, the week so far has been a sign that the first California gubernatorial race in a while without Arnold Schwarzenegger in it might still be worth paying attention to.
Late Update: Poizner stepped up his messaging on the alleged extortion plot last night. In a press release, Agen accused Whitman of canceling media appearances in order to avoid questions about Murphy’s email.
“This is just another instance where Meg Whitman’s ‘spine of steel’ is buckling in the wind,” Agen said.
(Additional reporting by Rachel Slajda)