Meg Whitman, Jerry Brown

A roundtable involving a journalist and two empty chairs

Sasha Abramsky is a regular contributor to SN&R and recent author of Inside Obama’s Brain and Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.

In early June, I began phoning and e-mailing both Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign offices, looking to arrange interviews with the candidates, their senior-policy and economic advisers, pollsters, media consultants, press spokesmen and to visit their campaign headquarters.

The responses from Tucker Bounds, Sarah Pompei and Drew Florio, Whitman’s press triumvirate, as well as from Sterling Clifford, an old friend of Brown’s brought in to head his campaign’s skeletal media operation: silence.

Detailed follow-up e-mails that I sent throughout June and July, as well as many phone messages, were also ignored.

As my deadline approached, I tried both campaigns one more time. Brown’s campaign didn’t bother to reply—although, by then, I had already interviewed many people who had worked with and known him over the decades. From Whitman’s campaign, Pompei phoned me back. She was extremely sorry, but it turned out that every single person I had requested to talk to had a “scheduling conflict” over the next several weeks and would be unavailable to take questions. Similarly, everybody in a position to even take me on a tour of headquarters also had an improbably and long-lasting “scheduling conflict.”

Yeah, right.

Most articles about politicians running for office involve quotes—from the politician, from their associates, from people who work with them to set strategy, from press spokesmen and so on. These quotes, which help illuminate how candidates think, talk, interact with their colleagues and deal with their opponents, are the bread and butter of the political profile. Along with descriptions of the politicians and their teams in action, the quotes are what enliven essentially analytical stories.

The article you are now reading on billionaire Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO and currently the Republican candidate for California’s governorship, and one-time governor and potential future governor Jerry Brown, will have few such quotes. That’s because neither Whitman nor Brown’s campaign are talking much to the general press, instead selecting only a few favored individuals and outlets for communication. As far as televised debates go, the pair will be appearing together in only two or three.

In May, journalist Nick Broten wrote in the online Talking Points Memo that “members of the California press corps are not happy with the way Meg Whitman treats them. Throughout her campaign for governor, Whitman has routinely stonewalled, sidestepped and shut out journalists.”

In his capacity as attorney general, Jerry Brown has done several dozen media appearances and press conferences in recent months, highlighting his achievements as the state’s chief law enforcement official. In his capacity as gubernatorial candidate, however, he has been far more reclusive. Recently, I have heard Los Angeles Times journalists voice their frustration at the fact that the Brown campaign makes announcements on policy initiatives and upcoming events via Twitter rather than contacting the major newspapers directly.

So I won’t bemoan the fact that I haven’t succeeded in getting interviews with the septuagenarian Brown, Whitman, or even the people close to her Bob Roberts-styled candidacy. Instead, I will posit the questions I would have asked them, had I been given the chance, and try to provide the answers as best I can.

Think of it as a roundtable involving a journalist and two empty chairs.

Is this an ideal way to write about a crucially important political race in California, the nation’s most populous state and among its most politically dysfunctional? Of course not. With so many parts of California failing to function, and with so many state systems ripe for re-imagining, this November’s gubernatorial contest is peculiarly consequential; its outcome will help shape the state’s educational, governmental, environmental, criminal-justice, tax and welfare systems for years, if not decades, to come. The victor in this race will have to navigate political currents in Sacramento made evermore treacherous by what promises to be a particularly drawn-out budget stalemate this summer and fall.

Obviously, it would have been better to talk in depth with the candidates and their advisers about their vision for a way forward and the specifics of their plan, but since that didn’t work, we’ll try this instead.

Question No. 1: Who are you?

Meg Whitman is a hard-hitting former CEO with a track record of being harsh on her subordinates, whose pitch to voters to support her in building “A New California” is essentially faux populist: If you want California run like a business, then I’m the gal for the job. She is one of the wealthiest women in America—paid $120 million just in her last year at eBay; and, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, or Michael Bloomberg in New York, she has developed a mid-life itch for the public-policy stage. She is convinced that politics is simply another business and that governing a state with double-digit unemployment and soaring poverty rates is akin to running a for-profit corporation.

The only person anywhere close to the Whitman campaign who was prepared to talk on record for this article was a Bay Area fundraiser named Kristin Hueter, who first worked with Whitman when the billionaire was co-chair of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

As Romney’s ill-fated candidacy was winding down, Hueter recalls getting a call from Whitman. “Keep your powder dry,” Whitman—who had limited political experience at the time and had gone long stretches without even voting in elections—told her. “I’m thinking about running for governor.” She began calling on people she’d met via her work at eBay, Procter & Gamble, Disney, and through involvement in both Romney and John McCain’s campaigns. She began assembling a national network of advisers and fundraisers of huge scope and talent.

For Hueter, Whitman’s money-heavy candidacy is nothing short of inspirational. “We’re ecstatic. Our party is ecstatic. She’s already helped us bring a lot of women back to the party. She’s our leader. It’s terrific.”

Of course, others aren’t so happy. Whitman reputedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a case involving her shoving a one-time employee in a fit of anger. She made a small fortune in dealings with Goldman Sachs, which critics say veered perilously close toward being insider trading. And she has written huge checks—close to $100,000 in “consultants’ fees”—to Solamere Capital LLC, which is an investment firm rather than a political-consultancy group, where her son Griff Harsh V works as an analyst.

In short, many Whitman watchers have concluded that she isn’t afraid to use her near-endless reserves of cash to buy her and her family members out of trouble and into favor.

Like most billionaires, Whitman is accustomed to getting her way, and, even though she has never run for elected office before, she’s hungry for California’s top job. If she fails, well, at least it will have been one hell of a ride for a woman who already has almost everything. It is the classic venture capitalist’s move: be willing to throw a lot of money at a tantalizing prospect, and have the guts to take a loss, should the prospect not pan out.

By contrast, there’s nothing novel about Brown’s penchant for the political stage. His father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was a legendary mid-century governor, and the younger Brown himself, after a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a Jesuit seminarian, was elected governor while still in his mid-30s. He has made a run for the presidency twice, but, rejected by Democratic Party primary voters, has had to settle for far less.

After being governor, Brown’s career took strange twists and turns. In 1998, he was elected mayor of Oakland (akin to a tennis pro spiraling down from the top of his game and having to regroup for a few years of purgatory on the satellite circuit). Then, more recently, he began climbing back up the greasy poll to statewide office again. He became attorney general for the state of California in 2006—in which he has developed a strong reputation as an advocate for consumers’ and workers’ rights and a slightly more improbable reputation as a “tough on crime” fighter.

Now in 2010, with the state in perennial crisis mode, Brown is truly back in the big leagues. His name recognition alone scared off other heavy hitters, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, from contesting the Democratic primaries, giving him an open road to the nomination. With the election less than three months off, he believes he can get elected as the state’s oldest-ever governor and somehow perform the miracle of shedding his “Governor Moonbeam” reputation and emerging as Governor Gravitas, an implausible savior of a near-broken polity.

Brown is, says Claremont McKenna College professor of government Jack Pitney, so old, that for many younger voters, he is in fact an entirely fresh face. For others, who may know that he’s still a senior figure in California politics, but who might not have seen recent photos of him, his re-emergence at the forefront of politics will be a visual slap around the side of the head, “like encountering an old friend at your 40th high-school reunion. The change is natural but shocking at the same time.”

Question No. 2: Meg, what do you stand for?

As with Romney, her political role model and former boss at the corporate consulting firm Bain & Company, Whitman has been dogged by allegations of flip-flopping. Indeed, a “flexibility,” or lack of political core principles, seems to characterize Whitman. Unlike GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who seems to be an ultra-conservative true believer, Whitman hued hard to the right during the Republican primary process. In the months since securing the nomination, as she looks to woo middle-of-the-road voters, she has done some big flip-flops over high-profile issues such as immigration reform and environmental protections.

Whitman is on record as opposing California’s much-vaunted Assembly Bill 32, aimed at significantly reducing the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions over the coming decades—yet she also claims to have given considerable charitable donations to environmental causes over the years. (In fact, according to The New York Times, she recently mentioned her environmental good deeds to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates when declining their invitation to join a club of philanthropically inclined billionaires who would publicly pledge to give away at least half of their fortunes either during their lifetimes or after death.)

Whitman has marketed herself as “tough on crime,” and, writing in the Fox & Hounds Daily in late July, she argued that “Californians deserve only the very best judges. My opponent has a track record of appointing some of the very worst.” Whitman has specifically attacked Brown for judicial appointments that had the effect of undermining the state’s death penalty. Yet, she has remained silent about how to continue to fund California’s huge penal infrastructure ($10 billion a year and rising) given the scale of long-term government cuts that she envisions.

On immigration, she began the primary season calling for comprehensive reform, and was then forced to tack rightward by her conservative base. She spent time calling for business owners who hired illegal immigrants to have to pay huge fines or even to lose their business licenses, but she recently backpedaled away from this commitment. In a recent appearance on the right-wing radio show The John & Ken Show, she made a point of highlighting her tough-on-immigration credentials, yet she has also been appealing to Latino voters, wary of the GOP’s rightward tilt on immigration, with a series of Spanish-language TV ads.

Where Whitman has been most consistent is on taxes: She favors eliminating the state’s capital gains tax, a move long called for by the state’s business interests, but one that would drain state revenues of as much as $5 billion in much needed revenues, further exacerbating California’s already awful budget woes.

Question No. 3: Jerry, what do you stand for?

Renowned for his personal frugality—he once told his then-Chief of Staff Gray Davis to leave a hole in his office carpet unrepaired on the assumption that when people came in to the governor’s office to ask for money, they’d be shamed into requesting less once they saw the shabby state of the furnishings—Brown has long been a conundrum in California politics.

As a young, unmarried, governor in the 1970s, he foreswore the governor’s mansion for a minimalist loft, reputedly sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor with his then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt. He chose not to ride in the gubernatorial limousine. He got rid of the state’s official airplane. And yet, at the same time, despite all of the penny-pinching, he came off as strangely detached from the concerns of regular citizens.

The young Gov. Brown was seen by some opponents to be more interested in funding avant-garde arts projects than in tackling day-to-day crises facing ordinary Californians, a perennial student rather than a man of action. He was, friends and colleagues from back in the day remember, always intellectually curious, always wanting to learn more. “You can argue with Jerry,” explains former Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg. “He likes to be challenged. He had around him people you wouldn’t expect. He comes into meetings knowing things you don’t know, or, even worse, things you don’t think he knows.”

Temperamentally, Brown is somewhat akin to consumer advocate Ralph Nader—a serious, even austere, somewhat self-important figure; intensely smart, rather prickly. At an age when many politicians start to think about calling it a day, there’s a touch of the Sunset Blvd.-aging diva about the candidate, a desire for the political spotlight to once more linger adoringly on his presence.

Ed Costantini, the elder Gov. Edmund Brown’s education secretary, remembers Brown Jr. as “more distant and cold” than his glad-handing father. “A sort of detachment. A focus on ideas rather than warm relationships.”

“He’s more emotive in the process than in the outcome,” says Deputy Attorney General James Humes, sitting in the department’s plush 17th floor Sacramento office. “He’s very pleased when things are going right and very frustrated when they’re not. He’s not effusively appreciative with people. That’s not his style. But it’s clear when he’s happy. And when he’s unhappy, he doesn’t shy away from expressing it. He’s direct, he’s candid, he asks questions, he pushes. He doesn’t let the person he’s unhappy with get out easy.”

As a young man, there was something fascinating about Brown. He wasn’t afraid to improvise, and he relished thinking outside of the box. He advanced an environmental agenda decades ahead of its time. And, while he was by no means a tax-and-spend liberal, he also was intellectually sympathetic to trade unions, allowing state workers to, for the first time, engage in collective bargaining—although also vetoing pay raises and pension agreements that he viewed as excessive.

Impossible to pigeonhole, Brown was always viewed with loathing by conservatives and with bemusement by progressives. To the enduring horror of the gay community, he vetoed a gay-rights bill, and, to the amazement of big-government liberals, he sided with the anti-property tax revolts of the late 1970s, resulting in a tailspin in funding for the state’s public-school infrastructure that California is still grappling with today.

Brown, says liberal San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, practices “canoe politics. You paddle to the left, you paddle to the right. These are the challenges a progressive has with Jerry Brown.”

The inconsistencies ended up pissing off a lot of voters. After Brown left office, Republicans occupied the governor’s office for the next 16 years. His protégé, Gray Davis, won power briefly as a moderate Democrat, only to lose it in a devastating recall election in 2003. And, for the past seven years, Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican, has held the job.

Brown seems, in many ways, a cannier politician today than he was back in the 1970s. As he has gotten older, depending on one’s point of view, he has either grown up or simply become more conservative. “He’s become more mature,” says Davis. “Being mayor of Oakland was a very sobering experience for him, trying to preserve safety, attract investors.”

Many of Brown’s friends and colleagues stress the fact that his getting married, for the first time in his mid-60s, at an age when most of his peers were thinking about retiring and spending more time with the grandkids, somehow helped him see the world in a new light, made him a better human being—and, presumably, by extension, a better politician.

Wary of alienating middle-of-the-road voters in this election season, candidate Brown won’t commit to reforming Proposition 13 and other tax-limiting measures that have contributed to the state’s fiscal mess. Neither will he pledge himself to overturning the supermajority requirement for raising taxes that most budget analysts believe makes true budget reforms impossible. He opposes the marijuana-legalization initiative, and, in an effort to show he’s not soft on crime, he has opposed changes to the state’s harsh—and financially ruinous—“three strikes” law.

So how will he solve the dominating problem of the state’s deficit? Not surprisingly, the answer is soothingly vague, suitably coy. Whitman’s proposals, including slashing the state’s workforce by 40,000, may be so unrealistic, socially devastating and provocative to the state’s powerful public-sector unions, that Gov. Schwarzenegger has said they make him “laugh.” But Brown’s specific solutions are largely nonexistent. He will, he says, force all legislators to take ownership of the crisis by forcing them to start talking about the budget in November, as opposed to waiting till the late spring. If that doesn’t work, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I would lock ’em up inside the chambers and not let em out until they come up with a result.”

He will oppose raising new taxes, unless voters approve the decision—legislators no longer have enough credibility with voters to increase the public’s tax burden on their own, he argues. And he has talked vaguely of the need for “a lot of cuts” without detailing specifics and risking alienating his public-sector union allies. He has also unrolled a job-creation plan to stimulate employment and thus boost government-tax revenues. But, again, it is a plan almost entirely devoid of details, other than that it will involve a lot of green-tech jobs. Call it an aspiration rather than a detailed policy proposal.

Question No. 4: What role does money play in your campaigns?

Jerry Brown has amassed a war chest in the $25 million range, much of it from public-sector trade unions terrified that a Gov. Whitman, with her draconian proposals to shrink the size of government, would eviscerate their roles through a slash-and-burn approach to the public sector.

Through the spring and summer, Brown has held onto almost all of his funds, creating only a skeletal staff and planning a late surge campaign in the fall. As of June 30, his campaign had spent less than $380,000—less than Whitman was spending each day. Brown’s strategy seems to be to lie low as long as possible, stay out of the spotlight while legislators navigate the budget impasse over the next couple of months, and then use his war chest to fund carefully targeted advertising salvos in the weeks leading up to the November election.

Where Whitman’s campaign headquarters ooze opulence and seem overstaffed with young, techno-savvy professionals, there’s something crusty, low-key, almost antiquated about the Brown campaign. It is run out of a warehouse in Oakland, relies more on volunteers than paid professionals, has few full-time staff members. In short, the campaign infrastructure is, in many ways, frugality personified, fetishized.

By contrast, for the past year, Whitman has blitzed her opponents, first primary challenger Steve Poizner, then Brown, by throwing vast amounts of her own money into the campaign. Come November, she will have used up more than $100 million of her own fortune, allowing her to continually engage (or, say critics, supersaturate) audiences with TV and Web ads, and to hire some of the country’s best—and priciest—political and media consultants. Some of her more expensive consultants cost up to many tens of thousands of dollars per month.

Boosters argue that she will literally shut Brown out with this strategy. Opponents disagree, pointing out that for all that she has outspent her opponent over the last several months, polls show the two candidates still in a virtual dead heat, with most giving Brown a slight edge.

Dan Newman, an opposition researcher who is involved in the “Level the Playing Field 2010” independent expenditure campaign, says there’s a law of diminishing returns related to this kind of campaign spending. “There’ve been wealthy candidates before, and candidates who’ve been reluctant to play by the normal rules before, but nothing approaching this scale. This is unprecedented. … Because she can buy whatever she wants, she doesn’t need to stoop to the level of talking to voters or reporters or opponents.”

Question No. 5: What does the current governor’s race say about the state of California’s small “d” democratic culture?

Whitman joins a growing list of billionaires who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to buy political access around the world in recent years: in Italy, there’s Berlusconi; in Russia several of the oligarchs have attempted to enter politics; in New York, there’s Bloomberg; and, before them all, there was Ross Perot.

While these men and women vary in their political talents and ideologies, their common bond is an attempt to use personal fortunes to bypass traditional paths to, and training regimens for, political success.

Ultimately, Whitman’s attempt to buy the political system is the single best reason to not vote for her. As a candidate, Brown has many flaws, and, to date, he has run a bizarrely ineffective campaign. But at least he has paid his dues. He isn’t a parvenu on the political stage, trying to mask his inexperience with great wads of cash. He isn’t a super wealthy fake populist with an agenda that, if implemented, would shred what is left of California’s social safety net and further eviscerate an already stressed public sector.

In many ways, the governor’s contest is an unpalatable choice. It is, says Jack Pitney, “really the battle of insiders pretending to be outsiders.”

As noted, neither candidate wants to engage too directly with the media or with angry voters; both want to cobble together majorities based largely on what they do not represent rather than on carefully thought-out strategies for fixing an increasingly dilapidated state economy and political system.

There are few positive reasons to support an aging, politically opportunistic, Jerry Brown; but, on the other hand, there are many, many reasons to oppose Meg Whitman, not the least of which is the awful precedent that would result were she to be able to literally buy her way into the governor’s office in Sacramento.

“You sometimes have to hold your nose,” argues Assemblyman Ammiano, detailing why, when push comes to shove, he will support Brown. “Sometimes you have to lower the bar. I really have to say to you, I hope the fucker wins.” He pauses, reconsiders his words. “Don’t say ‘fucker.’”

Several years back there was a governor’s race in Louisiana between a long-time Democrat with a criminal record and a GOPer who’d previously been a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard. Bumper stickers started appearing around the state: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”

Perhaps, as November nears, we’ll start seeing a bumper sticker with a variation on the theme show up on California’s cars. In the background will be two empty chairs. In the foreground the slogan “Vote for the Fucker. It’s Important.”