Opinion: Who’s this Meg Whitman who wants to run California?

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Outside the business community, to the extent she’s known at all, Meg Whitman was the wrong woman on some lists of John McCain’s possible vice presidential choices.

Having been Mitt Romney’s national finance chair in the Republican presidential primaries -- gee, was that a year ago already? -- the 52-year-old Whitman moved almost as quickly as Romney to back McCain, helping him raise millions in his unsuccessful general election effort alongside that Alaskan governor.

Now, Whitman herself has announced an ‘exploratory committee’ to run for California governor, which is exploratory in name only. There’ll be many more announcing on both sides in coming weeks, elbowing to replace the term-limited Austrian-born incumbent.

Whitman appears quite comfortable speaking in public, although she’s otherwise a political neophyte, not counting navigating the arcane internal politics of corporate monoliths like Procter & Gamble. She’s actually a New York native from Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. According to her new website (see video below), she’s spent the last 30 years in California as an avid skier, fly fisherperson and hiker.

The mother of two, Whitman had successful stints with several companies, most recently as president and chief executive of EBay. She became a business billionaire, which is a good thing if you want to run for anything in the nation’s most populous state, where TV ad salesmen did not nickname the Golden State by accident.

Born on Aug. 4, 1956, the youngest of three children of Margaret, a homemaker, and Hendricks Whitman, a businessman, Whitman attended local high school before heading for....


...Princeton, intent on a career in medicine. Encountering those required courses, however, she soon switched her major and graduated with a bachelor of economics before earning an MBA from Harvard.

Whitman’s first job in business was (look at her hair and take a guess) pushing Head & Shoulders shampoo with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, where she married Griffith Harsh IV, a neurosurgeon whose medical moves she matched with new jobs in a variety of companies. Later, Whitman also worked for Bain & Co. (ah, the Romney connection), the Walt Disney Corp. and Stride Rite, the children’s shoe maker, where she helped revive the moribund Keds line.

She was also CEO of FTD (Florists Transworld Delivery), turning the fading cooperative into a thriving, privately held firm before becoming head of Hasbro’s Playskool and Mr. Potato Head divisions.

Don’t laugh! Mr. Potato Head makes more each year than you will in a lifetime. Four years later, a headhunter approached Whitman about joining a fledgling online company called Auction Web. It was begun in 1995 by Pierre Omidyar, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, as a means for his girlfriend to find other collectors of Pez dispensers. No, really.

Initially, Whitman declined to even discuss an offer, preferring to be in charge of 600 employees. But after a meeting, she was impressed with the potential of online buying, especially a business model that combined the concept of yard sales, want ads and auctions with online ease and speed.

When she took over EBay in 1998, the company had 20 employees, sales of $195 million and a customer base of 750,000.

With Whitman encouraging businesses to sell online too, within a year the customer base was 7 million with sales of $741 million. And EBay became an everyday online spot for millions.

Whitman proved particularly adept at listening to customers and adding features like increased fraud protection for buyers and sellers. Listening. Listening. Now, there’s a rare political skill, one that she highlights in her initial video below.

She could be part of the shattered GOP’s national grassroots rebuilding process of personalities and ideas, which seems more likely to come from the ranks of Republican governors (now at 22) than those shiny suits in the Capitol minority holding congressional hallway news conferences at the mere sight of any microphone.

But first comes the GOP gubernatorial primary. Steve Poizner, another endowed Silicon Valley fellow who is state insurance commissioner, is running and has a lotta dough. Another likely competitor is ex-Rep. Tom Campbell, who’s biggest challenge may be money-raising.

Whitman has already lined up former Gov. Pete Wilson as her campaign chairman, which will help among traditional Republicans anyway. Not hard to guess who will get at least the tacit backing of

McCain and Romney, both now part-time Californians. She’s positioned herself as a social moderate and fiscal conservative who supports abortion rights, the usual stance for non-kamikaze Republicans on the Left Coast.

Here’s one early but resonant Whitman website theme: ‘In Sacramento, politicians argue but never lead.’

And although all of her potential competitors are better-known statewide, not being a familiar political statue has often proved to be a plus recently, given the public mood toward career politicians. Three of the last three presidents were elected on their very first try (and two of them were governors). And how much good did reeking of Sacramento help the good old Grayman last time out? (BTW, the possible Dem gov lineup is over here.)

Plus, Meg will be welcomed by California’s headline-writers who’ve been stuck with the incumbent 14-letter monstrosity for several years now.

--Andrew Malcolm

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