Move over Hollywood: The California Republican races are all about Silicon Valley
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Move over, Hollywood heartthrob. Tuesday's primary is all about the Silicon Valley nerd.
For years, actors in California have parlayed their good looks and substantial fortunes to shift into politics, most prominent among them Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former president Ronald Reagan. But in recent years, a new kind of celebrity, thrust into the spotlight during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, has made its presence known on the political scene: the technology entrepreneur.
Both Republicans vying for the nomination to succeed the term-limited Schwarzenegger earned notoriety and vast fortunes as executives in Silicon Valley.
Frontrunner Meg Whitman is the well known former CEO of eBay. Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner founded two companies, one of which pioneered technology used to put GPS devices in mobile phones, according to his Web site. A former tech executive is also the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate: Carly Fiorina became a household name during her controversial stint as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And former Facebook executive Chris Kelly is running for attorney general.
On the trail, Reagan had his practiced folksiness and Schwarzenegger had his action-hero schtick, driving around in a Humvee and dropping lines from his movies into his campaign appearances. Not surprisingly, this year's GOP contenders for governor have been less colorful, exhibiting instead the fierce competitiveness you would expect from over-achieving business leaders (for a taste, see Sunday's profile of Fiorina in the New York Times Magazine).
Democrats have noted that Whitman and Poizner have cut tens of thousands of attack ads against each other, and the two contenders have been assessed as less than personable in public appearances. Whitman -- dubbed "eMeg" by some in the blogosphere -- in particular has drawn criticism for her brusqueness toward reporters.
There are some similarities, though. Like many of the actors who ran for public office before them, they have poured tens of millions of their own dollars into their campaigns.
Both have written books, Whitman a business tome and Poizner an account of his year teaching at a troubled school in San Jose (the book was not well received by the school community, which has accused him of caricaturing the experience for political gain).
And like Reagan and Schwarzenegger before them, they have tried to leverage their "outsider" status, viewed as a boon especially now in an anti-incumbent year, though Poizner has also sought to highlight the cost-cutting measures he took during his four years as insurance commissioner.
But in the closing weeks of the primary campaign, they have adopted the more familiar tone of Republican politicians nationwide. Both have sought to portray themselves as focused on job-creation and cost-cutting at a time when the California budget process is widely viewed as dysfunctional. And each has tried to appear tough on illegal immigration, an issue that has come to dominate the campaign.
On Friday, Poizner tried to deflect attacks by Whitman that he has flip-flopped on the issue by publicizing his endorsement by Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff known for his tough tactics and strong support for his state's new law aimed at rooting out illegal immigrants.
The victor in Tuesday's gubernatorial nomination contest will likely face a different kind of California celebrity: Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. An elder statesman who served as governor in the 1970s and 1980s and more recently as mayor of Oakland, his colorful personality and failed presidential bids have elevated his reputation beyond the state's borders.
Though Brown has raised little money so far and has yet to fully update his Web site from his successful 2006 bid for attorney general, he is expected to be a formidable opponent against Tuesday's winnter. He's already got the knives out; this month he released a television ad titled "Enough already!" which criticizes the Republican contenders for their bickering and the more than $100 million spent in the campaign thus far.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
June 7, 2010; 11:55 AM ET
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