Surprise candidate leading in California statewide race |

Surprise candidate leading in California statewide race

Samantha Young
Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – A little-known state worker who spent less than $5,000 on his campaign is surprisingly ahead in his attempt to win the GOP nomination for a statewide post.

Brian FitzGerald, an attorney at the California Department of Insurance, is winning by nearly 11,000 votes in the Republican contest for state insurance commissioner.

His opponent, state Assemblyman Mike Villines, raised $1.1 million for his campaign and had been expected to easily win the primary.

More than 1.4 million votes were cast for the two candidates in Tuesday’s election, but the secretary of state’s office estimates counties have tens of thousands of ballots left to count. Those include vote-by-mail, provisional and damaged ballots.

FitzGerald, 53, ran an unconventional campaign, knocking on doors and using the Internet to post blogs and update supporters on Facebook. Most of the media ignored him, although he won the endorsement of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa.

Instead of holding an Election Night party, FitzGerald took his wife and two daughters to dinner at a local bistro in Napa and vanilla ice cream cones at Foster’s Freeze. He said he was “in a state of surprise” when he awoke the morning after the election to find out he had taken the lead in the insurance commissioner’s race. He had gone to bed the night before about 30,000 votes down.

“At least I established one thing: An ordinary person without money but with qualifications can run for office,” FitzGerald said.

He has worked in the legal division at the Department of Insurance the last 16 years as a staff attorney on enforcement cases. He said he got into the race fed up with the revolving door at the commissioner’s office.

“I’ve been through five insurance commissioners. I would like to see someone stay and do the job,” FitzGerald said. “Now someone spends two years learning the job and two years running for another job.”

Incumbent Steve Poizner decided to seek the GOP nomination for governor instead of re-election. He lost Tuesday to billionaire businesswoman Meg Whitman.

Whoever emerges the winner of the GOP nomination will face Democratic Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento in November.

A former Republican leader of the state Assembly, Villines had earned key newspaper endorsements in the GOP primary, held town hall meetings and paid to put his name on slate mailers.

“I was surprised as anybody else by the outcome,” said Villines, who has not conceded the race.

Villines, who is termed out of the Assembly this year, could have run for open seats in the state Senate or Congress. But he said he wanted to run for insurance commissioner because of his work in the Legislature on workers’ compensation, health care and fraud.

Villines, 43, fared well in the Central Valley, where he lives and enjoys high name recognition. But he was vilified and called a tax traitor on conservative talk radio in Southern California for his 2009 vote to raise taxes to help close the state budget deficit.

He also was listed as incumbent on the ballot in a year when many voters are angry with politicians over high unemployment, the economy and the state’s persistent budget woes.

“It was more of a vote, potentially, against me than for somebody,” Villines said.

FitzGerald was listed ahead of Villines on the ballot as an insurance department attorney.

He lists his political experience as stints working for the late Sen. S.I. Hayakawa while he was a student at Georgetown University and a San Francisco supervisor while in law school.

But FitzGerald’s first political memory came as a 7-year-old, when he rang a replica the Liberty Bell on the back of a flatbed truck at the 1964 Republican National Convention.

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