Saturday, January 9, 2010




Look at the leading candidates now running for high office in California and you’ll see more hopefuls than ever who took little or no interest in public affairs before they began wanting public offices for themselves.

They are following a precedent set by current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who voted in just six of 11 statewide and presidential elections during the 11 years before he won office in 2003.

There’s a reason for this phenomenon and for its being concentrated among Republicans. The party has a very short bench.

Through the 18 years since the 1992 election of former Gov. Pete Wilson, Republicans have held either one or two statewide offices at any time, never more. There’s only one Republican statewide official eligible to run for governor today, and he currently trails one of the non-voters. That would be Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who fell behind ex-eBay chair Meg Whitman during her autumn-long radio advertising blitz.

Normally, occupants of offices like lieutenant governor, attorney general, controller, treasurer and secretary of state are former legislators or leading local officials who have developed both political antennae and understanding of state issues.

At the same time, unless you’re a movie star like Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan or George Murphy, it’s tough to win a top-of-the-ticket job like governor or U.S. senator if you have not previously run statewide.

Lesser statewide offices can serve as useful apprenticeships or stepping stones. Poizner, a super-wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has not yet begun to advertise heavily, took this route. Whitman wants to skip all that.

She didn’t bother voting in the vast majority of elections where she could have participated before running for the state’s top office. Neither did Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO now running for the Republican Senate nomination.

Targeting a lower office – secretary of state – is another non-voter, former Stanford and NFL football player Damon Dunn, 33, now a wealthy real estate developer. Fiorina has voted in just six of 14 elections since 2000, Whitman in fewer and Dunn only once in his life. While Whitman and Fiorina apologize for their abysmal voting records, Dunn does not. “If I can get past this voting issue, what do they have on me?” he asked a reporter last fall.

A more pertinent question might be what can he bring to the office that manages all state elections when he’s got virtually no experience participating in them?

At times, non-voter candidates can demonstrate a startling insensitivity that experienced politicians avoid. Whitman, who makes vague promises about running the state like she did eBay, still stands by her company’s shielding the identities of California-based eBay sellers from the state Board of Equalization, which wants to collect many millions of dollars in back sales taxes from them. What these sellers owe probably makes up a significant part of the approximately $40 billion in back sales taxes now due to the state (about $2 billion per year over the last 20 years) – which there is little hope of collecting. Whitman thus promises fiscal responsibility while taking no responsibility for her company’s contribution to a problem she vows to solve.

At the same time, she excuses her miserable voting record by saying she was “concentrating on raising a family.” Of course, while she wasn’t voting, millions of other moms voted every chance they got.

Fiorina, similarly, possesses no qualification for high office other than having run Hewlett-Packard, which fired her in 2005. While an advisor to losing Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, she opined that vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin would not be qualified to run H-P.

“But that’s not what she’s running for. Running a corporation is a different sort of thing (than running the country),” Fiorina said. Is it also different from making decisions for the entire nation, as a senator often must?

Fiorina observed after laying off more than 10,000 H-P workers that she grossly underestimated their pain. Easy to do when your own contract calls for a huge golden parachute (she got more than $40 million).

Most non-voter candidates trying for high California office have said they want to run the state like a business. It is not. One difference: Unlike a business, where CEOs issue orders and underlings obey or get fired, governors often find few will heed their orders.

Schwarzenegger, who also promised to run the state like a business, tried telling Attorney General Jerry Brown which lawsuits to file, and when, only to see his “orders” ignored. He eventually learned he could horse-trade with legislators, but not order them about. His “businesslike” approach of constant borrowing via bonds and budget gimmicks helped put California into its worst fiscal hole ever – just like the scores of business executives who borrowed their companies’ way into eventual bankruptcy during the leadup to today’s financial crisis. So much for running the state like a business.

In fact, non-voters and folks who promise a business-style approach to government usually flop, with Schwarzenegger a prime example.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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