BY SUSAN ESTRICH
If there were one contest Meg Whitman didn’t need to win in her bid to become governor of California, it was the race to collect the most money from individuals and businesses that do business with the state of California.
Campaign disclosure reports filed last Tuesday generated surprising headlines and revealed that Whitman – who is accusing her opponent, Jerry Brown, of being beholden to the state’s unions – has in fact raised more money [$10.7 million] from individuals, businesses and other groups than Brown [$9.5 million]. The Los Angeles Times reported that among those maxing out [to the tune of $25,900] to Whitman are any number of businesses with an active lobbying presence in Sacramento, including Philip Morris, AT&T, the Western States Growers and Golden State Water Co.
A very rich candidate has two big advantages in politics. The first and most obvious is that when they need money for their campaign, they don’t have to spend hours on the phone or in person coaxing cash from wealthy interests. They just take out their checkbooks.
But the biggest advantage is the ability to trumpet their independence. You can’t buy the person who owns the store. You can’t corrupt someone who is funding their own campaign.
At a time when most people in California are hurting, or have a family member, friend or neighbor who is, it’s hard to watch someone spend money like it’s water in an effort to get their face [or a bad screen shot of their opponent] on television. In the weeks before “Nannygate” [Whitman’s 9-year employment of an undocumented housekeeper] took over the campaign, there was already resentment brewing about just how wealthy the former head of eBay is and just how much cash she has to burn.
Even so, she had a very good answer: She made that money herself. I, for one, respected the fact that this was a woman who made her billion and did it by building a business that fills my late nights with searches for the perfect designer suit or handbag. And I think many other Californians shared that respect.
Equally important, the fact that she was funding her own campaign [or appeared to be] meant that if elected, she would owe no one – or at least no one with financial interests to be served by the decisions she would make as governor. At a time when people don’t have much faith in the integrity of their government, that’s no small thing.
But the latest disclosures have taken it away.
Sure, if you add in the money the unions spent supporting Brown through “independent” expenditures, he’s had more outside help than Whitman. But even there, Whitman has pulled in outside help from unions.
The bottom line is that Brown needed that cash; Whitman didn’t. Would she be in any different shape, politically or even financially, without the $10 million in outside donations? When you’re spending more than $100 million of your own money, what’s an extra $10 million or $20 million compared to the value of being able to say that you really are a different kind of politician?
Whitman should have taken better care of her housekeeper. She should have hired a lawyer for her and been very generous about severance, giving her every reason to keep quiet and stay away from Gloria Allred. That would have been more than just good politics. It would have been good, period.
And she should have limited contributions to her campaign and pledged to not take money from any business or individual who does business with the state of California. She was rich enough to do it, and it would have been the right thing to do.
Maybe if she’d had more experience in politics or better advisers she would have made different decisions. But her failure to do so is contributing to a growing sense that she is not, in fact, a different kind of politician, a different kind of leader. In winning the money race, she has hurt herself in the race that really matters.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer