SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Nurses Association, one of the most aggressive labor groups in the state, has never encountered a foe like Meg Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay who spent more than $90 million winning the Republican nomination for governor.
The 85,000-member union is accustomed to winning, often in attention-grabbing ways. But it now finds itself in Whitman's crosshairs as part of her campaign against California's Democratically aligned public employee unions.
While the nurses association represents both public and private employees, it is part of the labor establishment Whitman has railed against. To Whitman, the unions symbolize California's undisciplined spending, political gridlock and inefficient, outdated operations that are anathema to her corporate sensibilities.
After the nurses association rejected Whitman's request to turn over its membership roster, she responded by buying a publicly available list of all the state's registered nurses, about 370,000. She then began mailing them fliers that slam the union's leadership, questioning its spending on anti-Whitman campaign events and saying its approach is unprofessional.
On Tuesday, Whitman's campaign released a four-page letter it was sending to nurses, inviting them to join a new advisory panel on nursing issues.
Union leaders say Whitman's agenda would punish the middle class and push the state deeper into recession. The agenda includes cutting 40,000 state government jobs, dramatically reducing public employee pensions, deregulating industry and cutting welfare benefits.
The nurses started the fight even before Whitman won the Republican gubernatorial nomination on June 8, launching an actress dressed as "Queen Meg" who trails Whitman at campaign events and private fundraisers.
"I was surprised that they just came out, right out of the box, attacking me," Whitman said during a recent campaign stop in Roseville, a Sacramento surburb. "And I said you know what, I am going to reach out to these nurses to make sure that all nurses know my position, and then they can make an informed decision."
Whitman hopes to drive a wedge between union leaders and their rank-and-file – a tactic only a multimillionaire candidate could afford to try, because of the expensive micro-targeting it requires.
In fliers and letters mailed to nurses' homes, Whitman asks them to evaluate her platform for themselves. She says she supports the group's signature issue – upholding the California law that requires hospitals to have at least one nurse for every five patients.
She skewers the Queen Meg campaign, a "party bus" she says cost the union $50,000 and calls out executive director Rose Ann DeMoro's $293,000 annual salary. The fliers also note that DeMoro's husband heads the union's research arm and is paid $142,000 a year.
Many of the same claims are echoed on a companion website, . The union said Tuesday it would post details about Whitman's corporate record at .
DeMoro said the salaries are exaggerated, but the exact sum is irrelevant.
"It's again this corporate boss telling the nurses how much they should pay their executive director. She thinks that she should be able to tell nurses what they should pay their staff," DeMoro said.
Union leaders said they have not received negative feedback from rank-and-file nurses since Whitman began mailing the fliers.
The aggressive counterattack also appears to be an effort by the Whitman campaign to avoid the same fate as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who received a resounding slapdown from the nurses when he attempted to stall the hospital staffing ratio measure in 2005.
The nurses union became integral to a coalition of labor groups that helped defeat all of Schwarzenegger's initiatives on the 2005 special election ballot. Two days after his defeat, Schwarzenegger dropped his lawsuit against the staffing ratios.
Polls show Whitman's broader strategy of focusing on job creation might be working to sway union members, even as she attacks organized labor.
A Field Poll released last week found that Whitman's opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, has just a six-point lead in households where at least one member of the family is affiliated with a union, much lower than expected.
All the major public employee unions have endorsed Brown, and unions are his biggest campaign donors.
Whitman's media trackers estimate that union-funded independent groups already have spent $6.6 million on advertising on Brown's behalf. The groups have yet to file fundraising and spending reports.
A new Whitman television ad launched this week calls out "the unions and special interests behind Jerry Brown," saying they oppose any changes to California government.
The Whitman campaign even hired a pollster to conduct its own survey of nurses.
Sherry Bebitch-Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, questioned the effectiveness of the strategy.
While it's common for Republican candidates to attack public employee unions, she said the public generally has goodwill toward nurses and does not equate their union with "big labor."
"I would not have singled out the nurses association, even if they were making fun of me," Bebitch-Jeffe said. "But I have a feeling that's part of the motivation, too."
Rather than retreat, the union is stepping up its crusade against Whitman. It has spent about $300,000 since last year opposing Whitman and supporting Brown.
The nurses are staging a rally Thursday in Atherton, the tony Silicon Valley town where Whitman lives.
"I think it's important for us to be able to communicate to our patients and the community just what California's in for if they get a corporate CEO in charge of California," said CNA co-president Deborah Burger.
Bebitch-Jeffe warned that Whitman runs the risk of mobilizing rather than dividing nurses.
"It appears to me that all she's doing is energizing the nurses and the nurses union," she said.