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Strange bedfellows

Dem picks GOP challenger to launch state tax campaign.

By Josh Wein | Staff Writer
Published on Tuesday, August 24, 2004
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SAN JOSE -- Assemblyman Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, may have formally endorsed Redwood City Councilmember and Democratic candidate Ira Ruskin to replace him in November, but he picked Ruskin's Republican opponent, Steve Poizner, to help launch a statewide ballot initiative modeled after a piece of failed legislation.

On Monday, Poizner and Simitian shared some valuable campaign-season face-time outside Independence High School in San Jose to kick off the statewide Taxpayers for School Improvement campaign. The group seeks to lower the threshold for voter approval of a school-sponsored parcel tax from 66 to 55 percent.

But the buzzing presence of campaign staff for both Ruskin and Poizner belied the press conference's focus on tax policy and education.

"Of course the timing of the launch is an added benefit to the Poizner campaign," said Jennifer Kerns, Poizner's campaign communications director. "Even though Joe's endorsed Mr. Ruskin, he's willing to cross party lines and work with Steve."

Poizner and Ruskin are facing off in what is widely thought to be one of the state's most competitive legislative races this election season. The district, which stretches from San Carlos to Santa Cruz, has typically been a Democratic lock. Democrats Simitian, Ted Lempert and Byron Sher were the last three to fill the seat.

Poizner, a former Silicon Valley CEO who sold his company SnapTrack for a reported $1 billion, has pumped more than $1 million into his war chest in the form of personally guaranteed loans from investment bank Goldman Sachs. And he has not been shy about spending it on publicity to overcome the disadvantage of running as a Republican in the heavily Democratic district.

Simitian downplayed the political significance of the event, calling the timing of the announcement "purely coincidental" from his standpoint. Still, it's not exactly a vote of confidence for Ruskin, who also attended the press conference to give comments -- although Ruskin doesn't see it that way.

"Not at all, this isn't about politics. This is about our children," Ruskin said. "I'm proud to support Joe, and I'm proud to have his support."

Although Poizner currently holds no elected office, he is in familiar territory with the taxpayer group. In 2001, Poizner donated nearly $200,000 to the campaign for Proposition 39, a similar initiative that successfully lowered the threshold for voter approval of a school construction bond from 66 percent to 55 percent.

Citing a need for local control, Poizner is again advocating a tinkering of the state's largest property-tax protection -- 1973's Proposition 13, which essentially froze property tax rates, the public school district's largest source of revenue.

Poizner and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who serves on the state Board of Education and will also work on the campaign, will both donate $25,000 to the campaign.

Simitian said his group is aiming to have ballot language ready by March 2006, and will be prepared to take it back to voters the following November if the measure fails.

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