The biggest obstacle Meg Whitman faces in her run for the governorship of California is not Jerry Brown. And certainly not Steve Poizner, her Republican primary opponent who trails her in the polls. Her hurdle is the urban state press, as well as the gray-beards among the political pundocracy, who have set their minds against her. Am I the only writer with some connection to journalism who judges that the former CEO of eBay is likely to be the next governor of California? (And not just because Whitman and recently-declared Democratic candidate Jerry Brown are running neck-and-neck in the latest Rasmussen poll.)
The scrutiny that Whitman has received here in California has led to some misleading articles. Immediately following a campaign appearance in Walnut Creek last week, for example, Whitman granted an interview to the San Jose Mercury News, which the paper headlined as "Meg Whitman holds forth on guns, gays and government." At that event, however, Meg Whitman made it clear to me and to everyone else in attendance that divisive social issues such as "guns and gays" are completely peripheral to what she wants to do in California.
How does Meg Whitman see the task in Sacramento? "In life and in business you can do only a small number of things really well." She would concentrate on jobs, government spending and education. As she said again and again in Walnut Creek, everything else in this time of state crisis is peripheral.
On what besides the old g & g do the state pols and press fixate? The tick-tock of campaigning. Who Meg Whitman's advisor Mike Murphy knows, elbows, strong-arms. What Tom Campbell was or was not promised in exchange for switching from the Republican gubernatorial to the senate primary. (Now Campbell is contesting Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore for the right to go one-on-one with Democrat Barbara Boxer.) As if any of this "inside-baseball" natter interests the stressed California voter. An iota.
Want to know what the San Francisco Chronicle thinks of Meg Whitman? Look no further than its headline of February 17: "Whitman denies crowning herself governor." Isn't this like asking when you stopped beating your wife? What kind of reportage is this? The press and the pundits have complained that Meg Whitman has avoided hard questions about solving the state's problems -- why not ask her some? In Walnut Creek last week Whitman lingered after the event to answer questions from the attendees who thronged her, until everyone had departed. This would have been a good time for one of those hard questions.
Not until after meeting Meg Whitman did I realize the extent to which I had accepted the conventional pund-o-vue that she is a neophyte, unlettered in the minutiae of governing, andawkward as a speaker. In Walnut Creek, she was assured in her delivery; she was a mistress of the detail. It's looking like it may not have been such a good strategy on the part of Jerry Brown to keep mum while Meg Whitman crisscrossed the state for a year, finding her equilibrium, gaining experience and expertise and most of all learning from mistakes. It's beginning to look as if the Whitman campaign, like the Obama campaign before it, hews to the long arc, pacing everything from campaign rhythm to press access according to a master plan.
Now that Jerry Brown has finally thrown his hat in the ring for the governorship, via a video on his web site, it seems that Brown and Whitman have exactly the same prescription for fixing California.
"Downsize state government from Sacramento" (Brown video). "The appointments process. The governor makes 3,000 appointments. Do you know how many the President has? 3,800. Can we do with 1,500? . . . We do not need 395 boards and commissions [in the state]" (Whitman, Walnut Creek).
"Return decisions and authority to the cities and the counties and the schools" (Brown). "We need to decentralize the control of education. . . . Let local school districts decide how to spend their money" (Whitman).
Nix-nix to taxes -- although here there is some revealing nuance. "In this time of recession, the people are financially strapped, and there will be no new taxes unless you the people vote for them" (Brown). "California has the highest personal income tax rate and business tax and sales tax [in the country]. I want to reduce taxes, but it's going to be hard to do that in the near term, facing a 20 billion budget deficit" (Whitman). In Walnut Creek, she was clear that she would not reduce taxes because dealing with the deficit is the priority.
If Whitman and Brown are approaching California's fiscal mess similarly, what's the difference to the average fed-up California voter? At this point, a candidate from the Polka-Dot Party who has some new ideas about fixing the state could win the governorship. People don't care about party. Don't care about social issues like guns and gays. They care about money. That being said, both Whitman and Brown have hurdles in the "convince me" sweepstakes. Whoever wins will have dramatized the more compelling story for wanting the job, and both stories are problematic. Brown looks like a career politician who can't bear to get out of the game, at a time when he should be an eminence grise at a think tank. His age gives his candidacy a tinge of either embarrassment or pathos -- I can't decide which. (Some day soon the seventies are going to be "the new fifties," and we will be comfortable with septuagenarian leaders. But we are not quite there yet.)
Whitman has the perfect temperament and centrist approach to problems to be a university president. So why politics? Why in the world would a retired CEO with a quarter billion of eBay stock join the fray? She could be setting up her own charitable trust to ameliorate something in the third world. So just like Brown, but for a different reason, Whitman is going to have to work to get voters to picture her in Sacramento.
Here is what Whitman has going for her. She is a worker. This could be, in the end, enough said. Voters like leaders who have toiled the 9 to 5. In Walnut Creek, Whitman recalled the Safeway grocery store down the road from her days as a Proctor & Gamble sales rep "from Vacaville to Gilroy." "I remember building shampoo displays in this store," she said. How many shampoo displays up and down the state did she build? That could be some powerful persuasion. Moreover, she is a tireless worker. She has spent the last year mastering the wonkish details. "I dove into the financials of the state of California," she said in Walnut Creek. She has learned to talk the numbers. Reporters, generally speaking, do not credit the intelligence of business leaders. And so the California press is underestimating Meg Whitman. She has been speaking with the governors of the other 49, picking their brains, soliciting advice, "looking outside for solutions that we can learn from."
She is a centrist. She is a pragmatist. Talking about California's latest contentious water issue, one pitting environmentalists and wine-making counties against farmers in the central part of the state, Whitman says, "I'm a supporter of this water bond. It's not a perfect bill. It has pork in it, but we can't keep kicking the problem down the road." She has that focused, cut-to-the-chase mindset of good leaders. She prioritizes. "If you put ten different reforms in front of the teachers' union, you will not get there [to education reform]," she says. She makes a case for bringing a few tactics from running a business to government. "I'm a big believer in the 80/20. The 20% of reform that will get you 80% of the way home."
Whitman envisions bringing "a healthy dose of Silicon Valley to help in Sacramento." Will voters like her business approach to turning around California? "We have a government we can no longer afford," she says. "Let's get after this. Let's run things a bit more like a business. It will never be a business. And it shouldn't. But some business fundamentals around technology and fighting fraud and delivering more for less and shrinking programs that no longer work. We don't have a choice anymore. Because we can't raise taxes on people anymore -- or we won't have a state."
Let's get after this. Meg Whitman sounds like a worker about to roll up her sleeves. She does not look like royalty. (Having inspected her up-close-and-personal, I can report that she cares nothing for clothes and jewelry.) But she has a huge war chest, which she is going to need in order to go around the state press who are set against her. Can she win, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans a million-plus? I am betting she can. Before you write me off, please recall that in June, 2007 I knew that Barack Obama was going to win the presidency. If I am wrong this time around, well, I have until November to figure out how to pay the bet.
At my web site mayhillfowler.com: a video of Meg Whitman talking to U.C. Berkeley students about rolling back tuition. A list of Whitman's specific policy proposals.