An Overlooked and Possibly Stunning Upset in California Primary

Given the national media’s extensive coverage of Alvin Greene’s mysterious primary victory in last Tuesday’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary in South Carolina, few observers seem to have noticed what might have been the most impressive victory by a dark-horse candidate in the 2010 primary season when little-known Brian D. FitzGerald, a political newcomer, apparently captured the Republican nomination for state insurance commissioner in last week‘s California primary. 

In what can only be described as a stunning political upset, the 53-year-old FitzGerald, a longtime attorney in the state Department of Insurance, appears to have narrowly defeated former GOP Assembly leader Michael Villines in last Tuesday’s primary by a razor-thin 1,635 votes.  [As of Tuesday afternoon, Villines had closed the gap by more than 1,400 votes and now trails FitGerald by only 234 votes.]

Remarkably, FitzGerald reportedly spent only $4,292 in his unheralded quest for the post currently held by Steve Poizner, the wealthy Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur who was drubbed by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in his bid for the Republican nomination for governor.

FitzGerald’s modest expenditures included a $2,800 filing fee, $1,075 for a 43-word statement in the California Ballot Pamphlet, and $417 for a trip from the Bay Area to Los Angeles where he met with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.

He didn’t have a single donor during the primary campaign and paid for everything out of his own pocket.

It’s believed that the virtually unknown FitzGerald, who lives in Napa, was helped immensely by a couple of radio talk show hosts in the Los Angeles area who urged their listeners in populous Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties to vote against presumed frontrunner Villines, a one-time aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, because of his role in shaping last year’s state budget that temporarily raised taxes.

Michael Villines trails FitzGerald by 1,635 votes.

Villines and three other state lawmakers had worked across party lines with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in early 2009 to close California’s $42 billion budget deficit — a widely-unpopular plan that included tax hikes and spending cuts — that was ultimately rejected by the voters in May of that year.

His willingness to cross party lines earned Villines, a three-term state legislator, a Profiles in Courage award, presented annually and named after President John F. Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Many California Republicans, however, were unwilling to forgive him for supporting a measure that included tax increases.

Last Tuesday, Villines lost badly in the four heavily-populated counties where radio hosts John Kobylt, a former sportswriter, and Ken Chiampou, an accountant who got his start in radio in upstate New York, sought to punish him and had targeted him for defeat.

Political observers in California have been hard-pressed to come up with a previous example of a relative unknown defeating a much better-known candidate in a statewide race, though some have cited the spectacular upset victory of perennial candidate James A. Ware of Los Angeles in the 1978 controller’s race.

Riding the momentum of Proposition 13, the Howard Jarvis-led anti-property tax initiative, the virtually unknown political gadfly from Los Angeles — waging his sixth of eight unsuccessful statewide candidacies — stunned heavily-favored Assemblyman Dixon Arnett in the Republican primary that year, but was trounced by incumbent Democrat Kenneth Cory in November.

FitzGerald, who’s clinging to a narrow lead, never expected to win the primary. “”It was a long shot,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “given that I was not well known.”

As long as his tenuous lead holds up when the official results are certified next month, FitzGerald will face Democrat Dave Jones, a three-term state assemblyman from Sacramento, in the November election. Jones was an easy winner in last Tuesday’s primary, swamping his only rival by more than 384,000 votes,

Four minor-party candidates are also running, including the Peace & Freedom Party’s Dina J. Padilla — the only woman in the race — who proudly casts herself as the “insurance industry’s worst nightmare.”

One Comment

  1. raul briseno says:

    The problem was that Mr. Villines came on the John & Ken show and promised not once or twice but 17 times that he would not vote to raise taxes. He gave specific reasons why he would never vote to raise taxes and outlined what could be done instead of raising taxes. Then he went and voted to raised taxes. So he lied. Lied, lied, lied. This guy even signed a pledge for no new taxes. So, armed with this knowledge, the people in the know decided to vote against this rat bastard. This is the reason people voted against him. This is my humble opinion. Thank you.

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