It's nine days before Election Day. Your mailbox is stuffed with political ads accusing candidates of doing everything short of sleeping with Sandra Bullock's husband. And all the nasty political TV and radio commercials are making you consider moving to Nebraska.
With two wealthy Silicon Valley GOP candidates for governor — Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner — spending more than $100 million just to win the right to spend tens of millions more in the fall, the negative advertising has reached such a crescendo that sorting fact from fiction — reality from "Alice in Wonderland" — is virtually impossible. But that won't stop us from trying.
A Mercury News Reality Check found that most of the charges lodged in the governor's race are technically true — but often so devoid of context that they are absurdly misleading.
So for Republicans and independents who plan to vote in the GOP primary, here's an insider's guide to the charges in all those annoying ads:
A SUMMARY OF WHITMAN'S MAIN CHARGES: The main theme of her ads is that Poizner is not to be trusted because his political track record reveals that he's a secret liberal. Mailers and ads on TV and radio say that Poizner was once 100 percent in support of abortion rights, worked to weaken Proposition 13, approved of raising sales taxes and is a profligate spender who let the Department of Insurance's budget grow by 14 percent during his reign as insurance commissioner.
A SUMMARY OF POIZNER'S MAIN CHARGES: His main theme is that Whitman is — you guessed it — a secret liberal. His ads accuse her of supporting liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer, amnesty for illegal immigrants and public funding of abortions. The ads also accuse her of not voting until age 46 and owning "vulture" funds that profit from the misery of foreclosed California homeowners.
Let's examine Whitman's charges first, one by one:
The charge: In his first run for public office, Poizner was 100 percent pro-choice and even supported "partial-birth abortion."
REALITY CHECK: The charge is true. When Poizner ran for state Assembly in 2004 against Ira Ruskin in the 21st District, he received a perfect rating from the political arm of Planned Parenthood. To get the 100 percent rating, a candidate must support public funding of abortions, oppose parental consent laws and back a woman's right to choose the abortion method most likely to preserve her health, including so-called partial-birth abortion. During his campaign for governor, Poizner has said he's moderated his views on abortion but is still pro-choice.
The charge: Poizner weakened Proposition 13 by making it easier for voters to increase taxes.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is true, but only when it comes to funding schools. In 2000, Poizner, long an advocate of improving education, contributed $193,234 to the campaign to pass Proposition 39, which made it easier to approve bonds to replace or repair aging schools by lowering the threshold for passage from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says passage of the measure in the first three years resulted in tax increases of at least $20 billion. But supporters of the measure — including Whitman's own campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson — argue that Proposition 39 has spurred the repair of hundreds of California schools.
The charge: Poizner favored raising sales taxes.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is technically true, but it's a stretch. In his Assembly campaign, Poizner supported the efforts of counties such as Santa Clara to raise local sales taxes to fund specific transportation projects, such as bringing BART to San Jose.
The charge: Poizner is a wasteful spender who let the Department of Insurance's budget grow by 14 percent since he became insurance commissioner.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is largely unfair. The Whitman campaign compares the budget for the department from fiscal year 2006-07, which began six months before Poizner even took office, with fiscal year 2008-09, the last year for which complete figures are available. The actual increase is closer to 9 percent when you make the starting point 2007-08, the first budget Poizner had influence over. It should also be noted that the insurance commissioner has control of only a percentage of the department's budget; legislative mandates dictate the rest of the expenditures. The portion of the department's budget that Poizner has control over has gone down 13.4 percent since he took office. (Poizner acknowledges that about a third of that reduction was imposed by the governor because of the state's budget crisis.)
The charge: Poizner contributed $1,000 to Al Gore's campaign and $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee when Gore ran for president in 2000. He also contributed $10,000 to Gore's unsuccessful vote-recount effort in Florida.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is true. Poizner wrote the checks in his name from a joint checking account. Poizner says his wife is a Democrat and that he did it at her request.
Now let's examine Poizner's charges, one by one:
The charge: Whitman supports amnesty for illegal immigrants.
REALITY CHECK: The charge stems from a comment Whitman made to reporters while touring the U.S.-Mexico border on Oct. 28. After telling reporters that deporting 12 million illegal immigrants wasn't practical, Whitman asked: "Can we get a fair program where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine, they do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization?" Whitman might not have realized it at the time, but the words "path to legalization" are code words for what conservatives call "amnesty." She now says she was referring to a guest worker program, but the explanation has holes. Why would guest workers have to pay a fine? During her campaign, Whitman has owned up to some "misstatements." She now says she's 100 percent against amnesty, but she has never recanted the statement made on the border. So the "amnesty'' charge is fair game.
The charge: Whitman supports public funding of abortions.
REALITY CHECK: The statement is accurate but somewhat disingenuous because, until recently, Poizner supported public funding of abortions. At campaign appearances, Whitman emphasizes that she supports the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions. But she's made clear to reporters that she wouldn't try to push for legislation to override a 1981 California Supreme Court decision requiring the state to pay for the abortions of Medi-Cal patients.
The charge: Whitman campaigned for liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is fair. Although it's an exaggeration to imply that she was out stumping for Boxer, Whitman signed at least one letter of support for Boxer when she ran for re-election against former California Secretary of State Bill Jones in 2004; Whitman also contributed $4,000 to Boxer's campaign. Whitman has said it's because Boxer opposed Internet taxes and that her position was "the only thing" on which she agreed with Boxer. The GOP's Jones, however, also opposed Internet taxes.
The charge: Whitman owns "vulture" funds that profited from the misery of California homeowners who lost their properties in foreclosure.
REALITY CHECK: There's no direct evidence on this one. Whitman is a limited partner in a fund managed by Fortress Investment Group, which became notorious a few years ago for investing in "distressed assets" such as foreclosed homes. Fortress had profited from people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. But because Whitman's fund is a private equity fund, there is no clear paper trail proving that she made money on home foreclosures.
The charge: Whitman didn't vote in any elections until she was 46 years old.
REALITY CHECK: The charge is disputable. It stems from a September story in the Sacramento Bee alleging that Whitman didn't register to vote until 2002. After the story appeared, several newspapers, including the Mercury News and the Bee, corrected the record after newly discovered records showed that Whitman registered to vote as a Republican when she lived in San Francisco in the 1980s. Officials there, however, say the records don't indicate whether Whitman — or many other people, for that matter — actually voted. Whitman, who acknowledges having an "atrocious" voting record, says she recalls voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.
A REALITY CHECK ON ALL THE ABOVE REALITY CHECKS: Consider this political dictum: The more similar two politicians are, the more they have to stretch the truth to distinguish themselves from their opponents.
That's certainly true about Whitman and Poizner. So listen closely to what they emphasize in interviews and on the stump: It's the economy, stupid. Both also promise education and budget reforms and call for fewer regulations and a streamlined government. In the scheme of things, their policy differences are minor.
Also consider the fact that public funding of abortion is the law of the land in California — and that "amnesty" for illegal immigrants is a federal issue. And that both candidates have Democratic skeletons piled in their closets.
To paraphrase Shakespeare's tragic hero Macbeth: The negative ads may be full of sound and fury, but they signify almost nothing.
Contact Ken McLaughlin at 408-920-5552.