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Stop the Presses: eMeg Speaks, Sort of…

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

megCalbuzz caught one of Meg Whitman’s hothouse flower political performances Tuesday and, we have to admit, she’s pretty good in a controlled setting before a small, safe audience.

Preaching to the choir, she delivered a well-honed, crisp and occasionally funny monologue (many of her jokes seem to feature her neurosurgeon husband, who allegedly likes to say, “It’s not brain surgery”) to a mostly Republican crowd of about 120 at a muffin and fruit salad breakfast in Santa Barbara, the very epicenter of California politics.

Although Her Megness once again stiffed Calbuzz on our primordial, sit-down interview request, our constant caterwauling about her inaccessibility may be paying incremental dividends, as she consented afterward to answer questions from reporters for 8 minutes and 13 seconds (our Department of Measureables and MBOs makes that 2 minutes and 3.25 seconds for each of the four scribes on hand). Then she blasted off to her next event in a gray Chevy Tahoe (shortly after extolling the virtues of green energy).

Enough with the sucking up.

The thrust of her schtick, which stayed relentlessly on a boost-business-bash-government message, is a kind of Neo-Checchism, in which she made the case for her candidacy by extolling her virtues as a business executive, promising to bring her gimlet-eyed, bottom line attitudes and experience to bear on state government, viz:

“I bring 30 years of business experience to managing state government and I will tell you my core belief is we have to run this a bit more like a business.”

“First and foremost I have run a very large organization with $8 billion in revenues and 15,000 employees and I’ve done that for many years, and I’ve also created jobs.

“We have to run (state government) like a business, because there’s no question that we are driving businesses out of California, and we have a government we can no longer afford.”

As a political matter: Putting aside for the moment the existential issue that government is, distinctly, not a business –- i.e. not established for the purposes of making a profit; producing goods and services in response to market demands; or serving only those with the ability to pay for the service it does provide —  Whitman’s campaign positioning as the business candidate faces three big challenges:

1-The business of citizenship. As we’ve noted Californians have long been immune to the charms of wealthy private business types who consider the governorship to be an entry level job (see Governors Ron Unz, Al  Checchi, Bill Simon, etc.), doubly so when a candidate has failed to perform the most basic duty of citizenship; thanks to Chronicler Carla Marinucci, we know that Whitman has a spotty voting record, failing to register until 2002, missing over half the elections since (including the 2003 recall) and not signing up as a Republican until 2007.

2-The business of business. Checchi, who spent millions of his own fortune in a failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1998, also showed how past business practices and decisions can ensnare a corporate executive candidate.

To cite just two examples of circumstances which invite the press and eMeg’s rivals to ask if this is the kind of financial expertise she’ll bring to Sacramento:

a) As CEO she hailed as a great coup her engineering of eBay’s acquisition of the online calling service Skype. The New York Times on Tuesday described it as “one of the worst technology transactions of the decade,” in reporting that eBay is about to sell Skype at a substantial loss.

b) Back in the halcyon dot-com days, as the B- has reported, she also “attracted controversy and criticism for accepting exclusive opportunities to invest in initial public stock offerings,” a practice that “led to a shareholder lawsuit against Whitman and others (and) also exposed Whitman to the national political scene when her investment drew a public thrashing by Congress.”

3-The boardroom business. While sticking to non-threatening, controlled venues, Whitman keeps ducking substantive interviews with serious California political media and debates with her rivals. The latest: her avoidance of the big Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s confab later this month which every candidate for governor except her has agreed to attend. Our friend Joe Garafoli also reports that KGO is having trouble dealing with her in their effort to put on a radio debate. This follows her earlier no-show at a Sacramento debate including GOP foes Steve Poizner and Tom Campbell, and her refusal to commit to another Republican event organized by Chapman University.

“We will certainly find time to debate between now and the primary, trust me,” she assured reporters when asked about this on Tuesday.

But being on the defensive about such an issue at this early stage of the campaign makes her look, well, afraid to venture outside her campaign cocoon, and suggests a sense of entitlement more befitting a penthouse boardroom maven than an elected official in the public arena.

As a policy matter: In her spiel, Whitman revealed an intriguing understanding of how government works. Asked directly how she can be effective in the swamp of Sacramento, eMeg claimed that she – unlike, oh say, all those stiffs who have preceded her – will use “all the levers you have as governor.” To wit:

1-Appointments. For starters, she talked about a “big infusion of the private sector into the government” and said that in selecting the 4,000 state employees under her purview she will get “exactly the right people in the right job.”

Well, actually not. There’s the small matter of attracting private sector talent – from Florida, Texas and elsewhere, she vowed – for public wages (we’ll also guess that all that far-flung talent just dying to move to River City will find California’s relocation benefits not quite up to eBay standards). Not to mention the power of the (Democratic) Legislature to torpedo or stall many of her star power appointments, or the thorny problem of trying to staff up an administration on the fly; as Obama is finding out, getting your team in place on the field while the clock is inexorably ticking is trickier than it looks.

2-Veto power. eMeg thundered about how she’ll whip the Legislature into shape: “You have to let the Legislature know what you will and will not put up with,” she said Tuesday. “You have to veto consistently so that they know what you will sign and what you won’t.” Bad dog! No peeing on the rug! Don’t ever do that again!

Excuse us, Your All-Mighty Megness, but every one of those 120 characters in what you might call your co-equal branch of government has his or her own narrow interests and constituency, and structurally none of them has much reason to fear you or your rolled up newspaper.

3-Ballot initiatives. Whitman called “the proposition process” a “double-edged sword” that needs fixing. The “pacing and sequencing of propositions is incredibly important,” she said, adding:  “I think you can only do one at a time.” Really? And the governor controls this how, exactly?

4-Leadership. Being governor, she said, is the “ultimate test of leadership and conviction” for which she is well suited because she’s “tough as nails” and has “a spine of steel.” She added: “If you have a huge need to be liked and to be popular all the time, this is not the job.”

The Calbuzz Aha Moment: Elections, it turns out, are not popularity contests. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?

Fishwrap: eMeg Spends, Steve Spins, Sarah Pales

Friday, July 17th, 2009

megauctionThe road to Damascus: While the Capitol Knucklehead Patrol keeps flailing in their efforts to pass a new budget, Calbuzz — issue oriented and solution driven, as always –- experienced an epiphany about how to stem the tide of red ink: Let’s let eMeg do it.

The campaign of Republican wannabe governor Whitman –- aka The Political Consultant Relief Act of 2010 –- announced this week that the candidate had kicked another $15 million of her own dough into the race, bringing her self-contributions to $19 Large to date.

This works out to $123,376.62 per day (or $5,140.69 an hour) since announcing her candidacy in February, according to sources in the Calbuzz CFO’s office; at this rate, she can pay off the deficit in a jiffy * and save all of us a lot of trouble.

Whitman’s early embrace of the famed Governor Al Checchi strategy seems designed with two basic purposes: 1) to intimidate and demoralize the opposition and 2) to bypass the media, old and new, in controlling the message and introducing herself to voters through a no-doubt stirring set of TV spots, a movie that Californians have seen before but never really warmed to.

For Whitman, the first problem with her Checchi strategy is that one of her primary rivals is Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who made his own pile in Silicon Valley and who keeps assuring us that his campaign will be “fully funded”; in other words, even though he’s currently throwing around nickels like manhole covers, when the deal goes down, he’ll spend whatever it takes.

“This election isn’t an eBay auction and you can’t win by out-bidding your opponent,” cracked recently arrived Poizner flack Jarron Agen. “With the economy in a recession, our message to Meg is: don’t stop at $15 million, spend it all and do it locally.”

Meg’s second problem is that while she seems intent on running a saccharine, Morning in America campaign – “Young voters find inspiration, common ground at San Diego MEGa WOMEN event,” her treacly website proclaims this week – both Poizner and the earnest Tom Campbell seem determined to talk about issues that actually matter to GOP voters.

Poizner noticeably stepped up his substance quotient in recent days, picking a fight with Nancy Pelosi in a speech about water delivered in Firebaugh, which was aimed straight at the heart of the conservative base in the drought-stricken Central Valley, where he also picked up another half-dozen ham and egg endorsements from local mayors, supervisors and tax assessors.

Next he showed up at Thursday’s big meeting of the tax reform Commission on the 21st Century Economy in San Francisco to ally himself with Republican true believers of the Arthur Laffer jihadist brigade: “As Governor, I will cut taxes for Californians,” he said after testifying to the commission.

While his woefully unspecific blanket statement at first glance seems kinda silly, Poizner’s red-meat-and-potatoes pitch is less designed for subtlety and weed whackers than for seizing hearts and minds among the true-believing anti-tax Republican base.

*(Calbuzz truth squad: Actually, if eMeg keeps giving her campaign money at the current rate, she’ll spend about $57 million of her fortune by next November’s election. Our Green Eyeshade Division advises that paying off California’s $27 billion deficit would take her slightly longer – until July 17, 2606. And we’re pretty sure she doesn’t have that much.)

palin winkStop the presses: Sacramento is not the worst state capital in America. In fact, according to the National Journal’s analysis of “The Six Most Dysfunctional State Governments” in the nation, California comes in a sorry sixth, scoring only 6.25 points out of a possible 10, and trailing South Carolina, Alaska, Illinois, Nevada and New York.

The magazine rated states according to four critieria, and while we scored big in “Policy Challenges” (10) and “Leadership Problems (8),” we lagged far behind in “Criminality” (1) and “Media Circus” atmosphere (6). Calbuzz notes that four of the five states finishing in front have had recent sex scandals while Alaska has Sarah Palin’s ongoing snowbilly soap opera saga. Memo to Arnold and Co. — Let’s get busy up there.

Calbuzz gets results: The worst idea of the year , Sen. Leland Yee’s effort to take control of the University of California away from the Regents and give it to the Legislature has died a quiet death at least for this legislative session.  “I guess the Regents have pretty powerful friends, that’s all I can say,” said Yee, D-S.F. Or rational ones, anyway.lorettacycle

Inquiring minds want to know: If Loretta Sanchez — she of the wacky Christmas cards — were to give up her seat in Congress and get herself  elected to succeed Arnold, would she forego the Governor’s Mansion for the Playboy Mansion?

Follow that story: Latest on the effort to free San Francisco journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, imprisoned in North Korea, is here , here and here.

Blue Plate Special: The Parsky Commission — you know, the bi-partisan panel charged by the governor with coming up with a unified proposal to restructure California’s tax system — on Thursday decided to accept for study the proposals from liberals to be thrown into the mix along with proposals from conservatives already in the hopper.

This is a smart move by the commission, which will now ask the governor for an extension of its term for at least another 45 days or so. The current leaders of the Legislature have pledged that whatever single proposal comes out of this group will get a straight up or down vote in both houses — an unparalleled  opportunity for a group of politically  and economically savvy outsides to affect fundamental change in California. If they don’t blow it by failing to find a compromise set of ideas.

Poizner Swings at eMeg: 1 Hit, 1 Miss

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

steve-poiznerIn the below-the-radar race for the GOP nomination,  Steve Poizner keeps chipping away at the central premise of Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor, aiming low-intensity but sustained sniper fire at her much-ballyhooed business acumen.

The Poison Commissioner in recent days threw two new shots at eMeg’s stewardship of eBay, one that landed crisply and the other a poorly advised boomerang.

The first came in an interview with Fortune magazine, one of eMeg’s favorite venues (n-e-e-e-i-i-i-g-g-h-h!) in which he contrasted his Silicon Valley success story of engineering portable GPS systems with his rival’s creation of an online market for peddling Beanie Babies.

In a sharp two-track political attack, Poizner smoothly and simultaneously promoted his own business bona fides as a serious-minded entrepreneur while dismissing her private sector experience as little more than marketing department fluff:

megauction“My competitor [has] extensive great experience in marketing and branding at Disney and Hasbro and eBay and other places,” he said. “And you know, a lot of people who are interested in the idea that California needs to be rebranded or marketed in a better way, will find Meg a very appealing choice.

“In my case, if people will find my candidacy to be the right choice, if they are looking for the state not to be rebranded, but to be rebuilt. So people are looking for that kind of entrepreneurial engineering horsepower to actually rebuild the state of California then I’ll be their choice.”

A few days later, however, Poizner’s campaign misfired by e-blasting a You Tube clipjimcramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” in which Jim Cramer defended the performance of eBay’s new CEO on grounds he inherited a company from Whitman that was “falling apart.”

Jim Cramer? Really?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Cramer was a no-account TV clown even before Jon Stewart famously pantsed him in a segment of “The Daily Show” that went viral across the blogosphere for several weeks. Using Cramer as a third-party validator for your campaign is like being endorsed by Alfred E. Newman or Carrot Top.

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Poizner Attacks; eMeg Would Axe Thousands; DiFi Speaks

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

poizneradIt’s a cheap trick and a cheap date, for sure. But Calbuzz is a sucker for all things new. So we’re passing along the link to Insurance commissioner Steve Poizner’s latest attempt to get his name in the news — his first “web video” of the campaign, attacking former eBay CEO Meg Whitman for ducking next Monday’s “debate” in Sacramento.

As a campaign tactic, Calbuzz finds this only a little bit cheesier than the phantom ads that candidates “release” but never spend money on to broadcast. These are not really campaign advertising in the sense of trying to reach a mass audience. They’re video press releases, masquerading as TV ads. We’ve called on those who are monitoring and covering campaigns to find out from candidates’ handlers just how big their big their buy is. If it’s less than $1 million in California, then it’s really being done to affect media coverage, not public opinion.

That’s exactly what Poizner is doing — even if he does use quotes from Calbuzz as third-party validation of his charges. It’s a video press release.

Meanwhile, Whitman today called for laying off 20,000 to 30,000 state employees “while prioritizing public safety and teachers” as a first step in dealing with a looming state deficit of up to $21 billion. In a speech to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, eMeg said “We shouldn’t have to lay off teachers, we need to lay off bureaucrats.”

For a critique of eMeg’s off-with-their-heads math, check out Josh Richman’s post at Political Blotter.

Feinstein Prop Update: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, after commissioning an exhaustive study, finally weighed in on the ballot measures today, holding her nose and supporting Propositions 1A and 1B. “I will reluctantly vote for 1A and 1B because I do not see any way to prevent a greater financial disaster for the state of California,” she said.

But she also said: “I will vote against Prop. 1C because I do not believe that taking money from future lottery proceeds to reconcile existing debt is advisable in public finance.” Also: “Voters are confronted with these bad choices because we don’t have a budgeting system that works effectively and efficiently in times of budget crisis. Ultimately, I believe major reform is necessary in order to put California back on track.”

Feinstein did not declare her position on another key state fiscal issue: whether or not to dump California’s two-thirds vote requirement to pass a state budget in the legislature.

Poizner Attack on Whitman Was Negative but NOT Dirty

Friday, April 17th, 2009

There are strategic and tactical reasons to question whether it’s a smart move for Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner to attack former eBay CEO Meg Whitman this early in the Republican primary race for governor. But Poizner’s fusillade was NOT dirty.

You can call it negative, tough, slashing, brutal, whatever, but we strongly disagree with this characterization on the very fine SacB site Capitol Alert: “With still more than 400 days until votes are cast, the GOP primary for governor is already starting to get dirty.”

No it’s not. Dirty is where you lie about your opponent, use below-the-belt personal information, make unfair charges, distort their record, etc. We don’t like dirty campaigning and when we see it, we’ll throw a red flag. But by holding Whitman’s leadership at eBay up to scrutiny, Poizner has done nothing dirty. It’s especially appropriate when a candidate comes out of the business world — and Poizner’s business background is fair game, too — because that’s the candidate’s record.

A political campaign for governor of California is not a dinner party. It’s a rough and tumble affair in which candidates should not be demonized by goody-twoshoes, holier-than-thou commentary or news reports. People are so cynical about politics already and it’s so easy to use a charge of “dirty campaigning” in a TV ad, that it’s important for those of us on the sidelines to make distinctions between dirty and slimy campaign tactics and legitimate, tough, negative campaigning.

We’re just sayin’.