‘The anti-Jerry Brown’

Meg Whitman is an impressive candidate, but some things don’t add up

The first thing you notice about Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, is that she’s tall, six feet or more, but graceful and poised, like the athlete she once was. Then she starts speaking, and you see that she’s got a warm smile and is engaging, articulate and focused. And you remember she has money to burn, and you think: Jerry Brown had better get his act together, or she’s going to bury him.

Then you hear her positions on the issues, and you realize that they don’t quite add up, and you wonder whether voters will eventually catch on.

These thoughts passed through my head when I turned out, along with more than 100 others, to see Whitman give her stump speech—her plan for California—at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Thursday morning (April 1).

Right now Whitman, the former eBay CEO who’s worth some $1.3 billion, is perhaps best known as the biggest-spending gubernatorial candidate in American history. Her recent announcement that she’s dumped another $20 million into her campaign brings her total self-funding to an astonishing $59 million.

Will it matter to voters that Whitman—a political novice who has rarely even voted—seems to be buying the election? Or will they look at what her money has bought and see a woman who has the smarts and executive skills to get the job done?

And how will they see her compared to Brown, the most politically experienced candidate ever to run for governor and a visionary in his time but also someone not known for his business-like focus and executive panache? It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar candidates. As someone put it Thursday, she’s “the anti-Jerry Brown.”

On the other hand, voters may see her as being too much like the equally inexperienced Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we know what happened to him. Lacking the skills to maneuver in the dysfunctional world of Capitol politics, he failed in almost everything he set out to do and will leave office with the state in even worse shape financially than when he was elected.

Whitman doesn’t like to talk about that dysfunction. When a woman in the audience asked how she intended to get a Democratic Legislature “on board” with her plan, she changed the subject by listing her “targeted tax cuts” designed to get businesses humming again.

It’s not clear how she’s going to cut state spending by an additional $15 billion (one of her three main goals) and institute tax cuts while building more prisons and directing more money to classrooms. As Brown has said, it’s “snake-oil math.”

It’s also hard to see how she can continue to try to appeal to the conservative Republican base by taking a harsh anti-immigrant line and still win a general election in which Latino voters will play a huge role.

But nothing would surprise me. Meg Whitman has made herself into a formidable candidate. Right now she has a three-point lead over Brown in the polls, despite Democrats’ strong registration advantage. Then again, she’s outspent him 200-1, while he’s been sitting on a $14 million warchest that’s sure to grow. It’s going to be an interesting election year.