Abusing Eminent Domain to Crush the Landowner

District 21 race takes a turn for the negative
By Dan Stober

Gone negative. That's the new direction of the closely watched state Assembly race between tech-rich Republican Steve Poizner and Redwood City Council Democrat Ira Ruskin.

In a mailer sent to Redwood City voters over the weekend, Poizner slammed his opponent, blaming him for the city council's clumsy and expensive use of eminent domain to seize property to make way for a privately owned downtown movie theater.

The ad accused Ruskin of abusing power to crush the landowner, who was described as "the Little Guy, a 75-year-old retiree."

Ruskin called a news conference in Redwood City on Monday to denounce the flier as a "hit piece" that used a fuzzy photo of him and a sensational selection of newspaper headlines to mislead voters.

But Poizner, who was walking precincts in San Jose's Almaden Valley on Monday, said his flier was an appropriate response to Ruskin's invitation for voters to study his record of public service. "This is going to be an ongoing theme in this campaign, to compare my track record and his track record," Poizner said.

It's slightly early in the political season for negative campaigning, said Michael Terris, a Democratic consultant in San Francisco who has run campaigns in Silicon Valley. "To get out ahead of Labor Day and hit the mail with something that would draw a contrast with your opponent would be unusual," he said.

The race in District 21 is being watched by political junkies across the state. It is one of only a handful of legislative races where the outcome is in believed to be in question. Gerrymandering of districts has left the others either safely Republican or Democratic.

District 21 is a carefully drawn Democratic district, but election watchers say a moderate Republican might have a chance, especially a successful entrepreneur willing to spend his own money, which Poizner is. The district includes 13 cities, from San Carlos to San Jose.

Despite denouncing the tone of Poizner's flier, Ruskin did not deny the underlying facts behind its allegations. San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp ruled in May that the city council's use of eminent domain was illegal. In the end, the city agreed to pay James and Aida Celotti $3 million for their property, well above its normal value, to settle a civil lawsuit.

Ruskin was, however, able to point to a line in the flier that seemed misleading: "Current Mayor Jeff Ira didn't vote for this plan, and with good reason." The implication was that the mayor had voted against the eminent domain process, but he had actually abstained from voting because of a financial conflict of interest, said Ruskin and two other city council members, Barbara Pierce and Jim Hartnett.

"He may want to quibble with a fact or two because he'd like to get the people's attention off the big picture," Poizner said.

Ruskin used his news conference to hammer home the point that his Republican opponent is, in fact, a Republican. The more Poizner has described himself as a moderate, pro-choice, pro-environment Republican, the more Ruskin has attempted to tie him to the White House.

"I have no connection, none, with any campaign other than my own," Poizner said.