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Poizner May Be GOP Savior on Redistricting

In a twist of political irony, the California Republican who invented the computer-mapping technology that was later adapted to gerrymander House districts is on a mission to reform the redistricting process in the Golden State and might be the only man who stands between the Democrats and their desire to eliminate GOP seats in 2011.

Meet Steve Poizner, 51, the elected California insurance commissioner who made millions in the computer software industry and is planning on running for governor in 2010. He intends to spend a considerable amount of his own money on the effort if he enters the race.

With Democrats in firm control of the state Legislature and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi serving as Speaker of the U.S. House, Republicans are prepared for the worst during the next redistricting process. California might actually lose a seat in the next reapportionment, and many GOP insiders expect Democrats to go for the jugular and map out of existence as many Republican seats as possible.

In California, the Legislature approves state legislative and Congressional districts every 10 years. But the governor is afforded a veto in the process, and Poizner is keenly aware of this little-discussed, behind-the-scenes power that could hang in the balance when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) exits office in 2010 because of term limits.

“I feel quite passionate about redistricting reform. It’s one of the reasons why I’m taking a very serious look at running for governor in 2010,” Poizner said this week while attending the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., as the co-chairman of the California delegation.

“The next governor is going to play a huge role in the 2011 redistricting process,” Poizner continued. “And yes, I am very concerned that Republicans are going to get gerrymandered out of existence. Right now we don’t have much of a presence in California for a variety of reasons, but it will be much worse if the Democrats get complete control over the reapportionment process.”

California has 53 House seats, the most of any state in the union. Of those, 34 are held by Democrats and 19 by Republicans. The breakdown was 33-20 until 2006, when now-Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) upset then-House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R) in the Republican-leaning 11th district.

When the 2001 maps were drawn, Democratic and Republican leaders negotiated to protect as many incumbent legislators and Congressmen as possible, resulting in seats that were almost entirely politically safe for one side or the other. However, there is speculation that Democrats might not be in a negotiating mood this time around.

“I think we’ll try to pick up as many red seats as possible,” said Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant based in Sacramento. “This budget debacle has made it more clear than ever that we need to get as close to a two-thirds majority to get anything done around here.”

Salazar was referring to the impasse over the fiscal 2008-09 state budget in particular as a motivating factor for Democrats to try to pick up seats in the next round of redistricting. The deadline to pass the budget was June 30, but the governor and the Legislature have yet to agree on a spending plan.

Poizner, a Houston native who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas, moved to Silicon Valley in 1978 to attend Stanford University Graduate School of Business. After earning his master of business administration degree, he decided to stick around, and in 1983 launched Strategic Mapping, a software company that developed advanced programs for mapping cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Poizner became a millionaire starting and running several technology companies, and has not been shy about spending that money on his political career.

Poizner’s software, which also went by the name Strategic Mapping, was later adapted by political consultants for use in redistricting, enabling them to draw district boundaries that accounted not just for towns or neighborhoods that lean Democratic or Republican, but adjusted districts down to the house.

Poizner, who a few years ago spent around $5 million of his own money in a failed bid for state Assembly in a Democratic-leaning district, has been on a mission to overhaul how California draws its legislative and federal seats. In a 2005 special election, he backed Schwarzenegger’s losing effort to pass a voter initiative to reform California’s redistricting process.

Earlier this year, he helped defeat Proposition 93, which would have extended term limits for state legislators. In that campaign, Poizner found himself on the opposite side of Schwarzenegger, the state Speaker and the state President Pro Tem. If elected governor, Poizner said, he would dangle an extension of term limits to coax the Legislature into approving a full-scale redistricting overhaul.

In California, state legislators can serve a maximum of three two-year Assembly terms and two four-year Senate terms. Legislative term limits were approved by the voters in 1990.

“I’m pretty convinced that the only way to get redistricting reform through the political process is you have to have Republicans and Democrats for the first time really agree to come together and put it on the ballot,” Poizner said. “Why would they do that? Well, in California they want longer terms, and they want longer terms pretty badly. That’s why I personally led the effort to kill” Proposition 93.

Since California’s current map went into effect in 2002, the 11th district is the only California seat to change hands; state legislative seats have been similarly safe.

Thematically, Poizner favors a system that removes the Legislature from the redistricting process and instead relies on a panel of retired judges or other experts made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Poizner said he would like this panel to craft seats that are politically competitive and geographically compact, while still adhering to the Voting Rights Act.

Initiatives to overhaul redistricting have been on the California ballot five times — and each proposition has been rejected by the voters. This November, voters will have another opportunity to weigh in on redistricting reform, although this ballot initiative would spare Congress and overhaul only how state legislative seats are drawn.

Poizner considers himself fiscally conservative — against tax hikes, deficit spending and excessive government regulation of business — and socially moderate. He believes government-sanctioned marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, but favors civil unions and is pro-abortion-rights.

That makes him a perfect Republican general election candidate for California governor, but not necessarily one who can survive a Republican primary. However, Poizner has been attentively courting California conservatives for years, and has steadily gained their support.

Poizner has also taken the lead in helping Republicans rebuild their voter registration rolls in California — after some gains on this front in the early 2000s, the Golden State GOP has been on the decline in the past few years. Possibly because Schwarzenegger veered left since winning re-election in 2006 and redefined what it means to be a moderate California Republican, one GOP strategist argued, Poizner is well-positioned to win the 2010 gubernatorial primary despite being a centrist on some key social issues.

“As of this moment, I think it’s fair to say that Steve Poizner enters a GOP primary for California governor as a frontrunner,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flash Report Web site and a state GOP official who is in St. Paul this week as an alternate delegate to the Republican convention. “He has a huge amount of cachet with GOP donors and activists.”

Meg Whitman, a founder of eBay, and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, both of whom are active in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, are among those Republicans who are considering running for governor in 2010.

One Democratic strategist based in California said Poizner has the makings of a competitive general election gubernatorial candidate. But he questioned Poizner’s ability to win a GOP primary, cautioning that the insurance commissioner’s bid could flame out as millionaire technology executive and then-state Controller Steve Westly’s did in the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

“If Poizner can make it through a GOP red-meat primary — and that’s a big if — on paper he would make a good candidate for governor,” this Democratic strategist said. “The problem is that he becomes Steve Westly 2.0: good on paper but light on solutions.”