For generations, gubernatorial candidates have been eager to gain endorsements from local elected officials and tap their experience at the retail level of politics.

The same is true in this year’s election cycle, motoring into high gear with the statewide primary June 8. On their Web sites, Republican front-runners Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner proudly cite hefty lists of local endorsements.

One prominent county supervisor had the Poizner and Whitman campaigns “aggressively” soliciting his endorsement, with initial interest followed by personal calls from both candidates. From both campaigns, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe was impressed by the responsiveness and attention to detail compared to the past.

“The big difference is just personal contact,” said Knabe, who decided to endorse Whitman (more about that decision later).

“Both candidates appear to be interested in local government and the issues we face,” Knabe said. “Los Angeles County is the largest county in America. In the past – I’m not going to name names – you didn’t have the personal contact. They didn’t think they needed the locals. They thought they could run it on the big issues.”

On Poizner’s campaign Web page on endorsements, there’s a breakout box of “Republican Legislators and Elected Officials” followed by a box 97 names deep of “California Local Elected Officials.” 

The latter list is mostly mayors, council members and county supervisors, but there are other elected officials as well, including school trustees and district attorneys.

The Whitman campaign has a category for elected leaders, topped by the big-name examples (John McCain) and congressional and state representatives, and then moving into a roster of 121 local elected officials: district attorneys, sheriffs, county supervisors, and mayors and city council members.

There’s a prominent list of endorsements by environmental organizations and their reps on the campaign Web site of Jerry Brown, running far ahead of Democratic challengers in the polls. 

Brown’s site has no parallel list of endorsements from local lawmakers. Campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford said that Brown, with his series of government jobs over the decades, has many local endorsements from “a network of people he has worked with and knows on a personal and professional level.”

Brown, the state’s attorney general, is trying to set the record for longest time between gubernatorial terms, from 1983 to 2010. As the mayor of Oakland from 1998 to 2006, Brown is the major candidate who has rolled up his sleeves and worked on neighborhood problems as a city elected official.

Vern Moss takes seriously his bully pulpit as a Madera County supervisor. Residents buttonhole him at coffee shops. Sometimes they call him at home to ask whom he has endorsed.

So he studied the Whitman and Poizner platforms and decided to endorse Poizner.

“The attack ads from his opposition turned me off totally,” said Moss. “Reading his book, I was impressed with the background and his entrepreneurship, starting two companies from scratch and selling one for a couple million dollars and one for a billion.”

Poizner’s book, “Mount Pleasant, My Journey from Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School,” recounts his entrepreneurship and his teaching of government classes at Mount Pleasant High in San Jose in 2002-03.

Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, is better prepared to work in the Sacramento environment, Moss said.

He has had no government dealings with Poizner, said Moss. Poizner called him personally asking for an endorsement, Moss said, after Moss had done some preliminary research. Moss said yes and followed up with a letter to the campaign formalizing the endorsement.

“That’s protocol,” he said.

The candidates value the input, Moss said.

“The local elected official is the closest to the people, the city councilman and county supervisor – that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “They are looking for the heartbeat and we can give them the heartbeat in Madera County.”

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, serving as a state assemblyman in 2005, met Meg Whitman as she discussed eBay issues (she’s the former CEO of eBay).

“I was impressed with her then and remain impressed with her now,” Benoit said. He endorsed Whitman also because he feels she has the best chance of beating Brown in the general election. “She brings women and she brings young people,” he said.

Since the endorsement, he has had several contracts with campaign staff. “We’ve talked primarily about how the campaign is going, areas we can see she can improve upon and what we’re hearing in the community,” said Benoit.

Los Angeles Supervisor Knabe had preliminary calls from the Whitman and Poizner camps last fall, followed up by personal calls from the candidates seeking his endorsement. He put them off for a while because he was busy on county business, but eventually endorsed Whitman in April.

He felt she had the best chance to win in November.

Both campaigns have kept him in the loop on developments via email, Knabe said, and “the Whitman people have been extremely receptive to my input.”

There are no direct prohibitions by law or regulation on endorsement of state candidates by local officials, representatives of statewide groups said.

“The long and short of it is that you can use your title but you can’t use public funds or public time to campaign,” said Jennifer Henning, executive director of the County Counsels’ Association of California.

The Institute for Local Government periodically gives city and county officials seminars on ethics. In those sessions there is no advice on local endorsements in statewide races, said JoAnne Speers, executive director of the ILG.

What does seem to come up every election cycle, she said, is a prohibition on government uniformed staff, such as police and firefighters, appearing in ads or videos on behalf of campaigns.

California Code is clear on that – Section 3206: “No officer or employee of a local agency shall participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform.”

The endorsement issue is indirectly addressed in some of ILG’s ethics advice available online.

“The same statutes that prohibit the use of public resources for personal benefit also prohibit the use of such resources for campaign purposes,” states ILG’s “Understanding the Basics of Public Service Ethics.”

“Public resources” include staff time, office equipment and supplies.

The state umbrella organizations – the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties – are nonpartisan. Those organizations and their officers issue no endorsements.

CSAC will sometimes take positions on statewide initiatives when there are direct effects on county government, said David Liebler, director of public affairs.

Lance Howland can be reached at