Whitman vs. Brown: big contrast in would-be governors

When finances turn questionable for a big business, there are
layoffs. From General Motors to General Electric and even the Los
Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Chronicle, that’s how it’s
done.
It doesn’t always work: GM, for instance, would probably be out
of business today without a huge government bailout. The San
Francisco Chronicle has shed subscribers at almost the same rate
it’s dumped employees.
By Tom Elias

When finances turn questionable for a big business, there are layoffs. From General Motors to General Electric and even the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Chronicle, that’s how it’s done.

It doesn’t always work: GM, for instance, would probably be out of business today without a huge government bailout. The San Francisco Chronicle has shed subscribers at almost the same rate it’s dumped employees. 

This is the same approach advocated in almost every speech Meg Whitman has made since she started running for governor, and it’s not surprising. All her experience has been in corporate environments, from marketing toys at Hasbro to running the FTD long-distance florist service and eBay. She wants to lay off 40,000 state workers as a first step toward making California solvent, but doesn’t say which ones or what services will be cut when they’re gone.  

Now that she’s the Republican nominee for governor, voters will compare her approach to the more collegial tack advocated by her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown, who promises that if elected, he will instantly sit down with everyone involved in the state decision-making process, from legislators to public employee unions. 

It’s a contrast in approach as dramatic as any in a California election since Ronald Reagan ousted Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, in 1968 by advocating a top-down style of government similar to what Whitman implies she might bring. Whitman has gotten this far by expending huge sums of her own money and campaigning mostly in an aloof manner, refusing for months to meet with reporters, traveling with a large entourage and hiring squads of high-priced consultants.     

Campaign emails that fell into the hands of reporters indicated she tried to force all her opponents out of the primary election. When Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner did not acquiesce, she began running a series of negative and sometimes inaccurate ads attacking him even when he was as much as 50 points behind in the polls. Not exactly a collegial approach, and Brown says it’s one that wouldn’t fly in Sacramento. 

“We ought to distinguish between what a chief executive of a private company does and what a governor does,” Brown said in an interview. “A governor can’t pick his employees and the members of his board of directors the way a CEO can.”  

Brown learned this the hard way during two terms as governor, which he began by telling the world he was bringing in “the best and the brightest” from around America to help him run California, only to watch a few become laughing stocks when they tried to govern by fiat. 

Whitman implies she can use a CEO’s tactics and approach to discipline California’s budget. But as a CEO, she controlled 100 percent of her company’s budget. As governor, about 85 percent of her spending would be allocated even before she started, to things like bond payments, public education, local government support and highways. Court decisions since current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered all state employees to take unpaid furlough days have shown how tough it can be for a governor to act alone.     

The Whitman ads that won her the GOP nomination didn’t deal with any of this. Rather, she tapped into the strain of anti-government, anti-illegal immigrant feeling that runs strong today and hopes to ride it to victory over Brown this fall. That worked in the primary, but the question now is whether it can work in a general election with a far more diverse electorate. Brown, running as more of a populist than he was in the 1970s, is betting it won’t.

Virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination this spring, he promised to “wrestle the bear” of the state budget to the floor, but at the same time cast himself as a defender of working Californians and state workers. 

“We hear from a lot of conservative circles (read: Whitman) that it’s the people who work for the people, the firefighters, the nurses, the janitors, these are the people who caused our problems – not true,” he shouted to a convention of the Service Employees International Union. He says it was big business and big banks, not big labor, that sent the economy into the tailspin from which it is only slowing recovering.

And he calls Whitman ignorant about both California and its government. “She only knows what her consultants tell her,” Brown said.     

On one thing Brown is definitely correct. “This will not be just a campaign of carefully crafted commercials,” he declares. Gifted at drawing news coverage when he likes, he will see to that. And he blasts Whitman for the way she’s funded her own campaign. “I’m not someone who says, ‘Oh, I have a billion dollars, I want to be governor.'” 

For sure, Brown won’t match Whitman’s money. But count on him being on TV plenty — even without the approximately $45 million he will spend.  All of which will make this a campaign of more contrasts and choices than California has seen in a long while. 

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected] His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition.

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