Saturday, October 17, 2009




Sometime during the last few weeks, Meg Whitman has surely thought seriously about a question that only the super-wealthy ever need contemplate: How much should I spend to become governor of California?

Few campaigns in this state have ever seen as much early trouble as Whitman's well-heeled drive for the 2010 Republican nomination to that office. The stuff all hit the fan for her about nine months before next June's primary, just about the time campaigns for high state offices begun getting serious.

It started with the Sacramento Bee reporting Whitman, the former chairman of the eBay Internet auction house, had not voted in any election anywhere prior to 2002 and that she had not registered as a Republican until 2007. Even though Whitman apologized profusely for her voting record, it later turned out she's actually voted a bit more often than the paper claimed.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle reported she donated the maximum $4,000 to the 2004 reelection campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and served on an exclusive "Technology Leaders for Boxer" committee raising money for the senator, long detested by the GOP.

Whitman tried to excuse her voting record - scant but not entirely non-existent - by saying she had "focused on raising a family…," adding that "My voting record, my registration record, is unacceptable."

This drew fire from women's groups like the National Organization for Women. "That's just an absurdity," said a NOW statement. "Part of raising your children is to teach them civics and their responsibilities as citizens."

About now, many candidates would seek a graceful way out. But few have fortunes estimated at over $1 billion. So while she was apologizing, Whitman never relented in her early-season radio ad campaign or her jetting around to visit Republican groups. And polls show she still has a lead within her party, if not by much.

So Whitman won't quit, even if all the revelations, both correct and exaggerated, put a crimp in her ability to raise money from others. At last report, she had kicked 19 million of her own dollars into her campaign and raised $6.7 million from others. Her effort seems bound to become even more self-financed because of her troubles. This does not appear to faze Whitman one bit. As long as she keeps writing checks, her campaign will go on. And she can write plenty.

Whitman should persist, says attorney Robert Naylor, former Republican leader of the state Assembly and ex-chairman of the state party.

"I think she still has a chance to win the general election by attracting independent voters," he said. "Her message and her record at eBay should be very appealing to them. She's thoroughly apologized for her voting record, as she should have. But all candidates have weaknesses and flaws. None of this stuff should be fatal."

Whitman doesn't sound anywhere near ready to go home. "I refuse to let California fail," she said in an interview, then spelled out plans to lower business taxes in an effort to create 2 million jobs. She also talks of simplifying regulations on business. "It took us at eBay two and a half years to build a 'green' building in Mountain View," she said. "That's unacceptable. I know California can't be run like a high-tech startup, but we need to apply some business principles. As governor, I will focus on creating jobs, cutting government spending and improving education."

But aside from saying she'd cut corporate taxes and government spending, Whitman offers few details. She says nothing about which government services she'd cut, how many workers she would fire or how she might get legislators to okay such cuts.

As yet, she also offers no answer for the key question raised by her voting record: Why should voters trust someone who evinced little interest in public policy for most of her life with the key public policy decisions for the nation's largest state?

Asked this question, Whitman said, "I was not as engaged as I should have been. But I became more engaged in politics and policy as chief executive of eBay. I helped create thousands of small businesses there and I saw how government could get in the way. Voters will have to evaluate my entire record."

If the history of self-financed candidates in this state means anything, they will get that chance. People like Norton Simon and Michael Huffington and Al Checchi and Jane Harman and William Matson Roth all stayed in races for either governor or the U.S. Senate as long as they could. All lost, either in primaries or general elections, but they kept writing checks right 'til the end.

Whitman will likely do the same. It will be up to her to prove that her past record won't doom her to the same fate as all the others who paid for their own campaigns.


Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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