The CEOs vs. the pols

Republican newcomers Whitman, Fiorina seek to use business cred to defeat Democratic veterans Brown, Boxer

Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown

Where the candidates stand: To learn where the candidates stand on the issues, go to the following websites: Jerry Brown:, Meg Whitman:, Barbara Boxer:, Carly Fiorna:

It’s coincidence that the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. senator are both wealthy former CEOs of huge Silicon Valley companies—eBay and Hewlett-Packard, respectively.

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina probably wish this similarity didn’t exist, since there’s a chance voters who manage to overlook their inexperience and spotty voting records might think two such candidates are at least one two many, but who really knows? Coincidence is always a player in high-stakes politics, as Whitman discovered when her former housekeeper showed up just weeks before the Nov. 2 election to drop a bomb on her campaign.

Whitman and Fiorina have something else in common: Both had to fend off strong primary challenges by far-right opponents, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in Whitman’s case, state Sen. Chuck DeVore in Fiorina’s. Both moved to the right to do so.

And both are battling highly experienced politicians in the general election—former Gov. Jerry Brown in Whitman’s case, 18-year Senate incumbent Barbara Boxer in Fiorina’s.

The result? Two intriguing races pitting well-financed Republican newcomers against Democratic veterans. Democrats have a 14-point registration advantage in California, but 20 percent of voters identify themselves as independent, and they’re feeling cranky and leaning right this year. Recent polls show the races are close, with Brown generally coming in five to seven points ahead of Whitman, and Boxer about four points ahead of Fiorina.

Both races are too tight to call and subject to whatever additional coincidences the political winds blow in—such as the recent flap over whether a Brown aide called Whitman a political “whore.”

Whitman vs. Brown

The Whitman/Brown race is already historic, since Whitman has spent more of her own money ($140 million) than any non-presidential candidate in history.

If that has fazed Brown, who had about $25 million in his campaign warchest as of Labor Day, he hasn’t shown it, and he rather nonchalantly made no media buys over the summer. Voters weren’t paying attention yet, he said, adding that Whitman’s profusion of television spots was making people tired of her.

Indeed, Brown has more than held his own against Whitman’s barrage.

At 72, Brown is as rich in political experience as Whitman is lacking in it. He’s also an intellectual provocateur, a man whose mind moves fast and who speaks off the cuff, sometimes to his own detriment. He’s the very opposite of a blow-dried candidate like Whitman: He loves the rough and tumble, likes to think on his feet, and gets in trouble sometimes when he does so.

The son of one of California’s most successful governors, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, he’s held a variety of offices, including California secretary of state (1971-75) and governor. After two terms there (1975-83), he chaired the state Democratic Party (1989-91), was mayor of Oakland (1999-2007) and currently is California attorney general.

As governor, Brown gained a reputation as a visionary in the areas of campaign reform, energy efficiency, the arts and, especially, the environment. California has been a leader to this day in green solutions in part because of the trail he blazed as governor.

He was also thrifty for a liberal, and by the time Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, he’d built up a $5 billion surplus. He’d strongly opposed the property-tax measure, and was roundly criticized when it passed for not doing more to offer tax relief beforehand.

But cities and counties, suddenly facing bankruptcy because of lost revenues, benefited from the surplus when he used it to bail them out.

This time around, he’s banking that California voters, after seven years of hit-and-miss governing by another political neophyte, Arnold Schwarzenegger, are looking for a seasoned pro.

His pitch is that, as a veteran, he will know how to make the system work better and deal with “the sharks in Sacramento.” A strong opponent of Proposition 23, he wants to continue developing California’s green businesses. He also wants to reform the budget process, make all departments justify their spending, and adopt pay-as-you-go spending.

He can be expected to be a strong supporter of education, of reforming the prison system and of pension reform.

Meg Whitman

Photo By kyle delmar

Meg Whitman, 54, grew up on Long Island, one of three children in a well-to-do family. She graduated from Princeton in 1977 with a BA with honors and from Harvard Business School in 1979 with an MBA.

She began her career with Procter & Gamble, worked at executive levels for several firms, including the Walt Disney Co., and first became a CEO, at the floral delivery service FTD, in 1995. She became CEO of the fledgling online retail company eBay in 1998 and moved to California.

At that time eBay had 30 employees and a budget of $4 million. Over the next decade, Whitman oversaw its expansion to 15,000 employees and annual revenues of about $8 billion. By the time she left eBay in November 2007, she was the fourth-wealthiest woman in California, with a personal fortune estimated at $1.3 billion.

She first became involved in politics in 2008, when she served on the presidential-campaign finance team of her longtime friend, Mitt Romney. When he failed to win the Republican primary, she became national co-chair of John McCain’s campaign.

In February 2009 she announced her candidacy for governor of California.

She came under fire almost immediately when it was learned that she’d rarely voted in past elections. But she weathered that storm, and others, to defeat Poizner in the June 8 primary.

To do so, she was forced to veer sharply to the right, especially on immigration issues. She’d earlier supported the kind of comprehensive reform advocated by McCain, but now she drew a hard line, vowing no “amnesty” for those in the state illegally and to crack down on employers who hire them.

Then she got blindsided when her former housekeeper surfaced with evidence that she’d worked in Whitman’s home for nine years despite being undocumented, and that Whitman had treated her coldly when she found out.

Lucky for Whitman, Brown had his own crisis a few days later, when a tape left running recorded a conversation among Brown and his top aides in which one of them used the word “whore” in reference to her trading concessions to the public-safety unions in return for their backing.

On the issues, she’s focused on three things: creating jobs, cutting government spending and fixing education.

To create jobs, she proposes to eliminate several taxes, including the tax on capital gains, and institute a number of tax credits. She also wants to streamline and reform regulations, suspend AB 32 for a year and make the business-permitting process easier.

She also wants to institute a 401(k)-style pension plan for most state employees, eliminate 40,000 state jobs through attrition, and raise the retirement age.

Finally, she wants to direct more funding to K-12 education, reward good teachers, and invest $1 billion in higher education.

Critics say Whitman’s economic plans don’t add up and lack speci-fics. And supporters of AB 32 say even a year-long moratorium would be damaging to the state’s flourishing green-technology industry.

Barbara Boxer

Fiornia vs. Boxer

Democrat Barbara Boxer, 69, a stockbroker by training, began her 40-year political career by serving six years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. In 1982, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served 10 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. She was re-elected twice, in 1998 and 2004.

She’s by reputation one of the most liberal members of the Senate, something she’s proud of. A staunch environmentalist, she chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee and also the Ethics Committee.

She’s been a strong backer of the Obama agenda on health care, stimulus funding and financial-sector reform. She’s also written bills offering tax credits to businesses that don’t ship jobs overseas and supported tax relief for college-education expenses and federal funding for after-school programs.

One of her top priorities as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee has been to address climate change by promoting green businesses and jobs and addressing carbon emissions. She supports cap-and-trade legislation.

Boxer is a leader in the Senate in support of reproductive choice for women. She’s also in favor of allowing the temporary Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

Carly Fiornia

Carly Fiorina’s is a classic American success story. She’s famous as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the only female head of a Fortune 20 company, but it’s less well known that she started her business career as a secretary, or that she worked her way through undergraduate and graduate school.

Fiorina, 56, spent 20 years at AT&T and Lucent Technologies before becoming HP’s CEO in 1999. Her six-year tenure there is controversial, with some industry pundits saying she had a remarkable success, reinventing the company and successfully steering it through the dot-com bust and increasing its annual revenues from $44 billion to $88 billion. Others point out that she was nudged out of her job because of doubts about HP’s purchase of Compaq and falling stock values, that there was great disharmony on executive levels, and that at best her record is a mixed bag characterized by shifting thousands of jobs overseas. She was given a $20 million severance package.

She had little political experience—and, like Whitman, had rarely voted—before joining John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. In November 2009 she announced her candidacy for the Senate.

Fiorina is as conservative as Boxer is liberal. She wants to repeal the health-care-reform legislation, is opposed to cap-and-trade, supports extending the Bush tax cuts, and has taken a pledge never to vote for higher taxes. She favors cutting federal spending (though not military spending) and paying down the national debt.

She’s a hawk on national security and is willing to spend as much as it takes to win in Afghanistan. She opposes trying foreign terrorists in civilian courts and closing Guantánamo Bay.

Fiorina is anti-abortion, opposed to gay marriage, opposed to the legalization of marijuana and supports the death penalty.