Former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman joined the race for governor of California on Monday, setting off a battle between Silicon Valley moguls for the 2010 Republican nomination.
Whitman, 52, has never run for public office but is banking on Californians’ viewing her corporate background as just what the state needs to break its chronic cycle of fiscal disasters.
“California faces challenges unlike any other time in its history -- a weak and faltering economy, massive job losses and an exploding state budget deficit,” she said in a written statement. “California is better than this, and I refuse to stand by and watch it fail.”
Whitman faces a tough fight, with a wide field of better-known Californians already jockeying to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is barred by state law from seeking another term.
Whitman’s chief rival for the party nomination is state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, also a high-tech tycoon. Another Republican exploring a run is a former Silicon Valley congressman, Tom Campbell, now a visiting law professor at Chapman University.
With vast personal wealth, Whitman and Poizner can each spend tens of millions of dollars apiece on the race; Campbell faces a steep challenge in raising enough to be competitive.
A spirited primary appears increasingly likely among Democrats as well. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi is the only major formal contender in the Democratic race for now, but Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom are both preparing to run. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also weighing whether to join the race after his likely reelection next month. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also not ruled out a run for the party nomination.
Whitman has offered no details on the agenda she would pursue as governor, and her campaign website, which debuted Monday, avoided specifics.
But she has made clear that she will position herself -- like Poizner and Campbell have -- as a fiscal conservative and social moderate who supports abortion rights.
That profile, a successful formula for Schwarzenegger and other Republicans in statewide races, leaves an opening for a more conservative candidate in the June 2010 primary. So far none has surfaced.
Raised in an upscale suburb of New York City, Whitman started her business career in marketing, promoting products including Head & Shoulders shampoo and Mr. Potato Head toys. As chief executive at EBay from 1998 to 2008, Whitman became a billionaire as she oversaw its rapid growth from obscure upstart to global Internet auction giant.
Whitman and her husband, Griffith Rutherford Harsh IV, a brain surgeon at Stanford, live in Atherton, Calif. Their two sons attend Princeton University.
As a first-time candidate, Whitman faces enormous risks. She has never undergone the intense media scrutiny that accompanies any serious bid for high office. She has only begun to meet the state’s vast network of Republican Party players. And with no experience in state office, she must study quickly the panoply of issues facing the nation’s most populous state, including a surge in unemployment, substandard public schools, clogged freeways and a dysfunctional Legislature that routinely fails to overcome budget shortfalls.
Whitman adversaries were quick to pounce. Art Torres, chairman of the state Democratic Party, faulted Whitman for her senior role in the presidential campaigns of Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain. He called her “a leading proponent of the disastrous economic policies that have left America in its worst financial crisis in generations.”
Poizner’s campaign chairman, Jim Brulte, took a sarcastic approach as he sought to undercut Whitman’s standing among GOP primary voters. He circulated a statement saying it was a sign of Republican strength that Whitman had “recently joined” the party. (She was a registered nonpartisan before shifting to Republican in 2007.) Brulte also called Poizner “the only candidate who has proven he can win a tough, statewide campaign.”
Meanwhile, Whitman faced instant trouble on the legal front. A Poizner supporter, Thomas N. Hudson of Placer County, filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission accusing Whitman of trying to evade disclosure rules for personal finances and campaign fundraising. A Whitman lawyer branded the complaint a “political stunt” with no legal merit.
In her statement, Whitman announced she was forming an exploratory committee. But the effort is exploratory in name only: Whitman has hired a team of more than two dozen advisors, including several veterans of Schwarzenegger campaigns.
Whitman named former Gov. Pete Wilson as her campaign chairman, a move that could limit her appeal among Latinos and others offended by his hard-line efforts against illegal immigration. Her campaign co-chairs include Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs.
Whitman’s campaign team planned to unveil her candidacy Monday morning, but Whitman herself jumped the gun by talking over the weekend to Deborah Perry Piscione, the chief executive for bettyconfidential.com, a social-networking website geared toward women under 50.
Piscione promoted Whitman’s candidacy on the website overnight. She said Whitman “wants to help in practical ways to solve the problems real people are having right now.”
Hometown: Raised in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Lives in Atherton, Calif.
Education: Princeton University, bachelor’s in economics. Harvard Business School, MBA
Career: President and chief executive of EBay, 1998 to 2008. Executive positions at Procter & Gamble, Hasbro, Stride Rite, Disney and Florists Transworld Delivery (FTD)
Source: Times reporting