Thursday, November 11, 2010





Maybe, just maybe, the era of the plutocrat in California politics will now ebb.

Here’s one reason: A truism in politics is that in most elections, the Republican will almost automatically win about 40 percent of the vote and the Democrat 40 percent. The outcome is determined by the other 20 percent. Billionaire Republican Meg Whitman took just over 41 percent of the total vote in her run for governor this month after spending almost $150 million of her own funds. For that price, then, she essentially bought about 1 percent of the vote. Some investment.

Pair her big Election Day loss with the obvious failure of ultra-wealthy muscleman actor Arnold Schwarznegger in the role of governor, and there’s a message for the upper-crust: Celebrity combined with big money might be enough to win an office, but cash alone probably can’t do it.

Plus, even the combination of celebrity and cash won’t help much in the long run if you don’t know how to govern. Best evidence for that: California is in demonstrably worse shape today than when Schwarzenegger took over the governor’s office in the 2003 recall election.

Ex-eBay executive Whitman’s attempt to buy the office began with the earliest media blitz in history and evolved into the priciest state campaign ever, with a total of more than $175 million expended by Election Day.

Not even the debacle surrounding Whitman’s several prevarications about her illegal immigrant housekeeper could slow her spending. Which might give some indication of how tight or loose she’d have been with the state’s money if she had somehow won.

But Whitman is far from alone among defeated plutocrats in California. Many have tried to win top offices in this state; none has succeeded with a mostly self-financed campaign.

Most recently, outgoing Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, a reputed billionaire from the Silicon Valley sank $25 million into his failed primary effort against Whitman.

Stunningly, that means while ultimate winner Jerry Brown spent almost none of his own money, his actual and putative Republican opponents kicked in more than $170 million in personal cash and still lost.

In a way, that scene is similar to what occurred in 1998, when plutocrats Al Checchi (former chief of Northwest Airlines – now part of Delta) and Jane Harman (whose husband Sidney recently bought Newsweek magazine) together put more than $55 million into the Democratic primary race for governor, only to be beaten by Gray Davis, who spent all of about $7 million – none of it personal funds.

Previously, the likes of Republicans Michael Huffington and Norton Simon lost pricey runs for the Senate, spending about $15 million each, while Democratic shipping heir William Matson Roth spent just a tad less on another losing Senate effort and Steve Westly, another ex-eBay executive, dropped more millions on his 2006 primary election run for governor.

Does all this mean plutocrats can’t win? No. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, spent $109 million of his own on his latest reelection race. Schwarzenegger has pumped more than 12 million of his own dollars into campaigns.

But the Whitman defeat, coming after Brown spent almost nothing against her until September, shows why other billionaires ought to be a bit more careful than Whitman in considering their own candidacies.

It’s true, business folk like her and Fiorina can get the political bug, as both did while helping out a bit on John McCain’s losing 2008 run for President. Whitman also advised her old friend Mitt Romney during the primary that year.

But most of the very wealthy didn’t get that way by throwing many millions down ratholes. So expect future plutocrat political possibilities to examine their potential weaknesses better than Whitman did. For one thing, she didn’t take seriously as a liability the fact that she had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper for nine years. She hoped to keep it quiet, even though she essentially tossed the woman onto the street at almost the very moment she started her media blitz. Did she think no one would find her ex-employee?

Nor did she think her physical abuse of an eBay employee would amount to much.

So Whitman probably shouldn’t have run. But few billionaires ever think they have weaknesses. No one around them – especially campaign consultants who can get rich while “helping” them – likes to tell them otherwise. Not even spouses. When Whitman’s husband, neurosurgeon Griffith Harsh, was asked on election eve how he’d feel about his wife spending almost $150 million of the family’s fortune if she lost, he could only stammer briefly that she would surely win, then flash a wry grin and shake his head.

Which means we will likely see more of the ultra-rich on the ballot, most likely folks we’ve never heard of just yet. That in turn means candidates like Brown and Davis can never really rest easy. Even when they’re in office, they will keep raising money because, as Davis used to say, “You never know when some billionaire will decide to run for something.”


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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