Saturday, July 10, 2010




For more than seven months, Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee for governor, has berated Democratic rival Jerry Brown for not telling Californians exactly what measures he would pursue to pull this state out of its financial malaise.

Meanwhile, she’s spelled out detailed plans for what she'll make happen if she wins the office.

Whitman’s stands come via an unprecedented 48-page magazine printed on high-quality paper that promises she'll cut 40,000 state jobs, suspend regulations for reducing greenhouse gases mandated by the 2006 AB32 even if a November ballot initiative aiming to do the same should fail, revise state labor laws and increase the number of H-1B visas given to foreign workers at high-tech companies.

There is, therefore, little doubt about what Whitman will attempt if she takes office. Hers is an approach very much like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger took during the 2003 recall election that made him governor – one that didn’t work for him and probably won’t work for Whitman if she becomes governor next January.

Sure, the media love this kind of openness. By spelling out dozens, maybe hundreds, of specific actions she will take or support, Whitman opens herself to all manner of questions and analyses. Everyone knows where she stands on a host of matters.

This can work well in a campaign, and it did for Whitman in the primary. But – like her talk about preventing amnesty for illegal immigrants – she might find once she takes office that there’s little she can do about much of her agenda. It took Schwarzenegger more than a year to learn this.

The Whitman approach stems from her long experience as a business executive, topped by almost a decade as chief executive of the eBay online auction house. She didn’t have to deal with a Democratic-dominated Legislature there. And her pledge to help turn that Legislature part-time (see page 22 of her campaign magazine) won’t sit well with many lawmakers who would vote on the bulk of her proposals.

Brown’s approach has been completely different. A former two-term governor, he said shortly after filing his candidacy papers that “We need to distinguish between what a CEO of a company does and what a governor does. The governor can’t pick many of his or her employees or a board of directors. It’s very different.”

That’s one reason Brown has played his cards close to the vest so far, revealing very few proposed actions. No promise to build a peripheral canal to carry Northern California river water around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers (Whitman’s magazine calls for an “alternative conveyance system,” which sounds to many like a peripheral canal). No plan to make legislators part-time. No promises to fire a large percentage of state workers.

Just a commitment to work with any legislators interested in solving problems. Yes, Brown takes a sort-of pledge about no-new-taxes: “I don’t think we have to raise taxes and there will be no new ones while I’m governor unless the people themselves vote for them,” he said. It’s an approach he followed for eight years as mayor of Oakland, where voters did pass (by two-thirds majorities) parcel taxes to help schools and police.

Rather than reveal a specific agenda, Brown has talked only about a process. “Focus on the budget is clearly the No. 1 priority,” he said. “I will deal with all 120 members of the Legislature from the day I’m elected, if I’m elected. I’m prepared to do the best I can to get us out of this mess.”

He makes it conditional, because he knows he can lose this election, as he lost his 1982 run for the U.S. Senate and a couple of abortive presidential bids.

Brown also has a touch of the optimism his father, Pat Brown, exuded during two terms as governor, a time when the University of California and the Cal State system expanded exponentially and most work on the state Water Project was done.

“Look,” he says, “we have a deficit for sure. But it’s a tiny fraction of California’s gross state product, which is in the trillions of dollars. That makes this more a problem of money management than anything else and we will fix it. There is plenty to work with.”

But he also makes no promises to state workers. “We need to look at every aspect of state government,” he said. “We need to slow our spending as the resilient, dynamic economy of California comes back.”

There were no specifics there. In fact, Brown's talk isn’t much different from Whitman’s overall theme. It’s the approach that’s different.

Yes, reporters would like him to reveal more about his plans, if he has any. They need things to write about. But whatever Brown says now could hamstring him later, as Schwarznegger’s promises did him and Whitman’s could do to her.

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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