Saturday, January 16, 2010




With just four major candidates left in this year’s run for governor, the race is beginning to shape up as a bonanza for “oppo” (opposition) researchers, the folks who dig up dirt on candidates, information that often winds up in negative campaign commercials.

For this time around, chances are they’ll find plenty of dirt. That’s because this is no ordinary corps of candidates. Each has a long record in business or government, or both, and most have taken controversial stands or actions that opponents will be sure to use against them.

For the moment, Democrat Jerry Brown appears exempt from all this. As last year ended, he had yet to spend a cent on advertising or publicity, and nevertheless managed to scare off every intra-party rival who stuck his or her head up, while holding decent poll leads over all three significant Republican hopefuls.

One area his eventual GOP rival will examine closely is how he winds up acting in the ACORN scandal, where workers for the controversial community organizing and voter registration group were captured in an underground video allegedly helping a supposed pimp figure out ways to smuggle Mexican women into this country to work as prostitutes.

OtherBrown actions will also be scrutinized, everything from trying to overturn the voter-passed Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage to supposedly misleading titles his office applies to ballot propositions he doesn’t like.

But Brown may have less to worry about than the two zillionaires competing for the GOP nomination to run against him.

They will likely do plenty of oppo research on each other, material Brown can later use.

Meg Whitman, usually described as a billionaire because of all the stock options she acquired while chief executive of the eBay online auction house, doesn’t even deny the company steadily refused under her leadership to provide lists of its California-based sellers to the state Board of Equalization, which says many eBay sellers evade paying sales taxes.

Over her 10-plus years at eBay, the board estimated, that has cost cash-strapped California between $500 million and $2 billion, while also placing law-abiding merchants who collect and pay sales taxes at a competitive disadvantage.

This revelation last fall was overwhelmed by Whitman’s months-long barrage of unanswered radio ads, financed mainly by the $19 million she kicked into her campaign kitty early on.

But there is other material on her, too. Questions abound about what Whitman knew, when she knew it and what she did about the common sales of counterfeit knockoff goods from golf clubs to autographs on eBay. The same questions apply to “shill-bidding,” where sellers set up more than one eBay account and fraudulently bid up the prices in their own auctions. The more they sell and the higher the prices, the more money eBay makes.

“Counterfeits are illegal and not welcome on any of eBay’s sites,” the company insists, and campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei says eBay under Whitman “went to great lengths” to fight these practices, but many eBay sellers and customers claim they continue and court statements in London last fall called the counterfeit golf equipment sales “a conspiracy of a truly global nature.”

Meanwhile, rival Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner who denies being a billionaire but put $15 million into his campaign last month, stands accused by consumer advocates of making decisions undermining the 1988 Proposition 103 insurance rate rollback initiative.

The Consumer Watchdog advocacy group has claimed some decisions favor insurance companies over consumers, something Poizner vigorously denies. Bet on Whitman hashing all this out if Poizner draws close to her during the spring.

If all this seems unusual, it is. But not unprecedented. Yes, it was a newspaper, not opposing candidates, that during the 2003 recall campaign dredged up information about current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s groping of women, information he never denied.

Newspapers also dug up the Oracle scandal that plagued Schwarzenegger’s predecessor, Gray Davis. That’s the one where the computer software firm handed a $25,000 campaign donation to a Davis operative the day before the state awarded it a big contract. But it was oppo research that effectively killed the 1992 Senate candidacy of conservative talk show host and family values advocate Bruce Herschensohn with allegations about attending strip clubs in Hollywood.

The bottom line: the closer this campaign becomes and the nearer Election Days draw in both June and November, the more negatives will likely emerge. Some material is already out there, and major candidates are paying their oppo researchers to find more.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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