Saturday, February 13, 2010



Meg Whitman’s nonstop five-month barrage of radio ads has vaulted her into a huge poll lead in the Republican run for governor, with most surveys showing her ahead of rival Steve Poizner by about 30 percentage points. The same polls show she’s drawn almost even with Democrat Jerry Brown, the presumptive Democratic candidate to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s a position once enjoyed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who held a similar lead over rival Bill Simon at just about the same time in 2002, when the primary election was contested much earlier than this year’s date of June 8. Riordan lost the nomination.

One reason: While he was well-known at the campaign’s start and Simon was not, Riordan had said some things about which most Republican voters were unaware, referring to parts of California outside Los Angeles as “strange places,” waffling on issues like abortion and gun control. When a series of TV commercials funded by then-Gov. Gray Davis revealed some of this, Riordan’s support quickly evaporated. It had been a mile wide and less than an inch deep, as the political cliché goes.

Very unlike Simon, Poizner has already invested almost 20 million of his own dollars in his run, has $18 million on hand and will not need help from any Democrat to publicize some Whitman remarks that Republican voters probably won’t care for. When he does that, the depth of the support Whitman’s radio ads have ginned up will be tested. But Poizner will have to go on the air soon to achieve much effect, as Whitman has now added TV commercials to her radio ads. If he dawdles, it will quickly become too late for him to accomplish much.

Here’s one Whitman comment, made last month on a cable TV show: “In many ways, the proposition process has worn out its usefulness. I mean, the referendum process, you know, dates back to 1918, I think. And it has its useful purpose, but there’s no question we have too many referendums on the ballot and too much spending has been, ah, you know, propositioned into process. So, I think you got to have a different approach, no question about it.”

In short, Whitman was telling Republicans “Vote for me, but not on much else that matters to you.”

Historical and etymological note to Meg: The initiative and referendum process in California dates from 1911, not 1918. And she meant initiatives, not referenda. A referendum here is an attempt to rescind a law passed by the Legislature before it takes effect. Referenda are rare: the most significant of modern times came in 1982, when voters reversed a legislative decision to build a Peripheral Canal bringing river water south around the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

But never mind that Whitman displays poor knowledge of California history and nomenclature: she’s rarely voted and showed little interest in politics until very recently.

What counts is how that statement and others will affect Republican voters. Most of them revere Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax cutting initiative. Conservatives also ran Propositions 209 and 227, which ended affirmative action in California government and stopped most bilingual education programs. So the conservatives who dominate Republican primaries like to decide major issues at the ballot box. What happens when they learn Whitman doesn’t want them doing that?

Then there’s her frequent promise to concentrate on just three tasks, and little else. These include education, jobs and cutting government spending. Those areas are it, she often says in her speeches, calling this “focus”; don’t expect much else from a Whitman administration.

What about water? What about energy production? To name just two other issues. U.S. senators sometimes get to pick and choose what they’ll focus on. But no California governor can evade key issues. As the second most powerful public official in America, any California governor eventually has to deal with everything.

Add in Poizner’s claim of threats by Whitman consultant Mike Murphy to “tear him up” if he didn’t drop out of the race. And Whitman’s frequent – but false – stump speech claim to have lived in California 30 years, repeated in her first television ad but edited out after newspapers pointed up the exaggeration. And her telling a Detroit newspaper in 1995 that Massachusetts was a better place than Southern California to rear her children.

All of which probably means Poizner is correct when he opines that “I don’t think the polls mean a lot” just yet. They will come to mean plenty, though, unless he goes on the air soon.

Just like Riordan, Whitman has said things most Republican voters don’t yet know about. If Poizner makes sure they find out, the race for the GOP nomination will sudden become much tighter than it now looks.

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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