100 Days Out: Three Key Questions for Gov’s Race

Mar1

This story is also being published today in the Los Angeles Times.

One hundred days before the June 8 primary election, the race for governor of California has taken shape, but the outcome won’t be clear without answers to three key questions.

Dianne Feinstein’s announcement late last month that she won’t run leaves Attorney General Jerry Brown as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee – with his formal announcement of candidacy expected any day now.

Republicans still have a two-person contest, although former eBay chief Meg Whitman at the moment is overwhelming her rival, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, by all conventional political measures – polls, money and campaign organization.

At a time when a huge majority of voters say California is on the wrong track and express deep anxieties about their economic prospects, the crucial challenge for all three candidates is to demonstrate they have the ideas and abilities to lead state government in helping to improve economic conditions.

For this trio, that task is especially daunting, because front-runners Brown and Whitman represent perhaps the two most reviled cultural icons of the moment – the career politician and the career CEO – while Poizner splits the difference, with a foot in both worlds. Here is a look at the fundamental question for each candidate.

Which Jerry Brown will show up?

When Feinstein called Brown on Feb. 17 to say she’d firmly decided not to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, his first reaction was disappointment: He was kind of hoping she would run, Brown said, so he didn’t have to.

The once and maybe-future governor’s comment,  as reported by the Orange County Register, was no doubt a joke. But Freud never sleeps. Brown’s hesitation to jump into the governor’s race with enthusiasm and energy reflects an ambivalence which has been a hallmark of his political persona.

Facing a March 12 deadline for formally declaring his candidacy, Brown has yet to articulate a clear rationale for why he wants the job. He recently began a much-panned speech to supporters with this telling equivocation: “I was thinking tonight, I was trying to figure out that if I did announce, what the hell would I say?”

At 71, Brown is attempting to retake the office he held at 36, which would give him the historic distinction of serving  as both California’s youngest and California’s oldest governor. His decades of political shape-shifting provide him a host of campaign memes and identities from which to choose.

What strategic message will he articulate? Will voters see the fiery prairie populist, shaking his fist at banks and corporate interests? The savvy, world-weary work hand, who understands better than anyone how to repair the broken machinery of government? Or the avuncular senior statesman, whose age-foreshortened ambitions position him to make painful choices other politicians cannot?

Brown’s played out the string as long as he can. It’s time for him to explain why he wants to be governor and what he would do in office. Again.

Does Meg Whitman have a glass jaw?

Republican Whitman has shrewdly positioned herself as the GOP front-runner with an elusive and chimerical strategy consisting of tightly controlled campaign events and high-profile national media interviews; avoidance of debates with rivals and most no-holds-barred interviews with California reporters. And she has spent more money than any previous candidate at this point in a California race.

Having already spent $39 million, much of it from her own personal fortune, Whitman has soared in the polls. But she now faces increasing questions and political pressures about her lack of transparency and unwillingness to face the humiliating rituals of press and public inspection to which political candidates routinely submit to win the privilege of governance.

Take the current flap over her refusal to date to release her tax returns: Ignoring the calls of a Democrat-affiliated campaign committee, she has resisted making a full disclosure of her personal financial data. This controversy follows earlier disputes over her refusal to debate Poizner – she has finally consented to one two televised encounters before the primary – and her rejection of most substantive interview requests from state-based journalists.

Taken together, these actions have made her look high-handed, secretive and contemptuous of the public process, raising questions about her ability to withstand, not only the rigors of hand-to-hand political combat, but also a close examination of her finances, background and suitability for office. As one pro-Brown e-mail asked this week, “What does Meg Whitman have to hide?”

Will Poizner mount a serious campaign?

For more than a year, Poizner has conducted a classic insider political campaign, doing the hard political work of building a network of local supporters across the state, introducing himself at drop-bys and meet-and-greets, editorial board meetings and talk shows, and preparing issue papers and policy proposals.

In normal times, it might have worked. But Whitman’s extraordinary spending, used strategically on an effective radio and TV advertising effort, has made Poizner’s campaign of tactics look all but irrelevant, as he lags far her behind in the polls and lacks widespread name identification.

The only Republican candidate beside Arnold Schwarzenegger to win statewide office in the last decade, the Insurance Commissioner, like Whitman, was also a Silicon Valley success story, earning his fortune at a company that made GPS devices for cell phones. Unlike Whitman, however, Poizner has husbanded his resources in the governor’s race, holding back on spending for media while insisting his tortoise-and-hare approach would prevail in the end.

But as a raft of former endorsers have jumped ship to Whitman, he’s been forced to deny chronic rumors that he’s about to drop out. And Poizner now finds himself buried in the polls beneath Whitman’s money and his own indecisiveness. Expected to begin his ad campaign soon, he’s running out of time to break through to voters, a large majority of whom have never heard of him.

So, with 100 days to go, the identity of the next governor will be found in the answers: Can Steve get it on? Can Meg take a punch? Which Jerry will come to the party?


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There are 4 comments for this post

  1. avatar sqrjn says:

    I wonder if we are simply seeing an example of the new from Whitman refusing to talk to reporters. Seems like many political teams including those of the former and current president have decided that less is more when talking to reporters. If the people don’t care if you take alot of exposure time infront of the press, why take the risk unless you have a clear objective? I’m just saying that attributing Whitman’s avoidance as weakness could be an error. She’s so strong simply spending cash, it’d be stupid for her to take questions. Taking questions gives you free media exposure, which she obviously doesn’t need.

  2. avatar tsmitty says:

    Shouldn’t the key questions have something to do with the **issues**?

  3. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    You write about the gubernatorial puzzle with clarity.

    As to the Poizner governor campaign, I got so desperate with Steve that I, a rare church attendee, actually invoked God’s blessing on his campaign. He is worth supporting because he has lived the motto, “Service to humanity is the best work of life”. Frankly, the only material thing backing his gubernatorial hope is Steve’s remaining $17 mil. investment…and that’s solid.

  4. avatar Divebomber says:

    I agree with sqrjn – there’s no need to talk to the press when you can buy your own press. No worries about spin and misquotes. Just select the time and place for battle. I imagine that’s maddening for hard-core “we’re the press, please call us God” types. However, it worked for Mr. Obama and it might work for Meg.

    Despite CalBuzz’s incessant pleading for Mr. Brown to do something… anything… to stop the Meg-a-blitz from steamrolling into Sacramento, Mr. Brown probably realizes (better than anyone currently positioning themselves for a run) that the ills that plague Sacramento are virtually fatal, due to a deadly combination of poor, misguided legislation, political cowardice, and ridiculous legislate-by-proposition outcomes. It’s doubtful that anyone can solve the issues without first undergoing a complete governmental collapse – something Mr. Brown probably doesn’t want to be on the “pointy end of the spear” for.

    And Mr. Poizner? Well… and I mean this with all the kindness I can feel for politicians in Sacramento theses days… he’s just boring. Granted – not a good reason to vote – or not vote – for a candidate. But a reason many will use none the less.

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