Big money defines the California governor’s race

MARIN COUNTY,  Calif. — California voters are poised to learn in the November election about the power of the dollar bill.

Or, to be more exact, the power of more than 100 million dollar bills, since Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has already spent that much in her quest to take over the California Statehouse and is promising to spend more.

Whitman was a relative unknown, except in some business circles, when she began her campaign to become California’s first woman governor last year. She had been a successful executive of several international businesses before becoming the CEO of eBay, Inc. in 1998. She served until early 2008. EBay was an established business when Whitman took over, but she is credited with greatly expanding it during her tenure.

While ordinary mortals might gasp at Whitman’s penchant for throwing money around, her personal fortune is estimated at $1.3 billion, meaning that she can easily afford the awesome sum she is putting into her election hopes.

Whitman’s campaign against her Democratic opponent, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, has engulfed television since she won the Republican nomination in June. All of her television ads have been pointedly critical of Brown’s political history as secretary of state, governor, mayor of Oakland and state attorney general. She has called him a professional politician, which, in fact, he is.

I credit her for her campaign’s clever placement of evening television ads between local and national newscasts. In those ads she calls Brown a “failure,” and points to a long list of things she claims he has failed to do as promised. His campaign, of course, refutes those claims.

My theory is that many listeners will confuse the ads with the newscasts and come to the conclusion that her charges against Brown are proven fact and not primarily campaign advertising.

While Whitman would be the first female governor in California, there is little discrimination in the voting booth against women here. Both U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are women, and a casual count of California’s congressional representatives shows that about one-third are women.

Like residents of every other state, Californians love political polls and seem to have at least one a week. Less than a year ago, when Whitman began her campaign and Brown was considered the probable Democratic candidate, he led the polls by double digits. That lead has grown progressively narrower, and one recent poll showed 48 percent of likely voters supporting Whitman, with 40 percent backing Brown. With a 4 percent error margin, the two candidates could be tied at 44 percent. Whitman strategists say that means their candidate has taken a slight lead. Brown strategists say it means that, despite Whitman’s extensive and expensive campaign, the two candidates remain tied.

During her tenure at eBay, Whitman employed 15,000 people, according to her campaign literature. In California, plagued by high unemployment and deep state debt, she claims on one hand to have a plan to put 250,000 people to work, which sounds good to all those between-jobs residents. On the other, she has said she will cut the “excessive number” of workers on the state payroll by 40,000, which won’t sit well with civil service employees.

Where does Brown stand? It’s a bit hard to tell because he had just mounted his campaign by several appearances in various parts of the state by Labor Day weekend, when his first television ads also began to appear. So far, his television campaign has been a rehash of his record as governor of California from 1975 to 1983. His ads have been a sort of “Am not” to Whitman’s claims of “Are so.”

Brown has obviously and publicly been at a disadvantage in the matter of campaign funds. At the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, his campaign staff said that he had a war chest of about $44 million, which explains his reluctance to put big money into advertising earlier. In addition, he was unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Brown, at 72, is described by some detractors as an “old white guy.” He is slenderly built and has a studious, professorial appearance. Whitman is 54, somewhat sturdily built and a blonde. She looks as if she would be well-cast in an opera as Brunhilde, dressed in armor and wearing a horned Teutonic helmet.

For all her rhetoric about her CEO experience, Whitman will face a different milieu if she becomes California’s next governor. Whitman claims she has the ability to bring all factions together. As the head of a large corporation, Whitman ultimately had the ability to hire and fire every one of her employees. As governor, she will find that legislators — most of whom fervently believe their own press clippings — will not bend easily to her whims or wishes, a fact that the present governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has mostly learned.

It is difficult to figure what might happen in the rest of California when one lives in the area including San Francisco, Marin County and Contra Costa County, all of which are overwhelmingly Democratic and which some political strategists have already ceded to Brown.

I wouldn’t attempt to forecast whether Whitman will win or lose. California is considered a “blue state” and voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2008 presidential election. But it has twice elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, its current governor. And, since 1960 when Brown’s father, Pat, was elected governor, four Republicans and three Democrats have held the office.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson was longtime political reporter for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in California.


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