Gubernatorial race is heavy on smoke and mirrors

Capitol Journal

What’s worse? Political ads that ignore facts or ads that ignore substance?

Distortion or demagoguery? Not that an ad can’t be both.

The question comes to mind as broadcast ads fly in the California gubernatorial race, more than three months before the June 8 state primary and a political eon before the Nov. 2 runoff.

Republican front-runner Meg Whitman, at least, is feinting toward substance, even if avoiding tricky details. The rap on her is that she stretches the truth.

That’s not uncommon among political candidates. But it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be called on it, especially in Whitman’s case. Practically all we know about her thoughts for governing this broken state is what we hear or see in her ads. For months, she has ducked California reporters and, until very recently, spoken only to friendly, handpicked audiences, if at all.

But the billionaire former EBay chief has unlimited millions to spend on TV and radio spots.

The presumed Democratic candidate, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, won’t be able to raise nearly enough money to match either Whitman or the GOP dark horse, multimillionaire state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

Fortunately for Brown, California law -- already in place before a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision -- allows for creation of “independent expenditure committees” that can raise unlimited sums of money to spend on behalf of a candidate. The only caveat is that the independent campaign can’t be coordinated with the candidate.

Enter an independent committee calling itself Level the Playing Field 2010. Funded largely by rich liberals and labor unions, and staffed by Democratic consultants, its goal is to help Brown by beating up on Whitman.

Its first attack is straight out of a worn page of the political consultants’ basic playbook: Demand that any rich candidate release her income tax returns.

“What’s Meg Whitman trying to hide?” the radio ad intones.

“It hits the bulls eye,” says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, one of the committee’s advisors.

“It raises questions about decisions she made in the private sector and her character. This is a unique election. Here’s someone who made a jillion dollars in the private sector and is spending it trying to be elected governor, but is not engaging in the democratic process.”

Let’s be honest: This really is about class warfare, pitting the day-to-day strugglers against the super wealthy. It’s old-fashioned populism. It’s also about knocking the opponent around and hopefully off balance.

“I may release my tax returns,” Whitman told Times reporter Seema Mehta on Tuesday. “But I’ll do it on my own timetable.”

If she does release them, that’s too bad.

They’re really nobody’s business except the tax collectors’ -- the Internal Revenue Service or the state Franchise Tax Board. Or a lender or a court.

It shouldn’t be water cooler trivia for the needlessly nosy.

The public can learn most of what it needs to about a candidate’s investments and potential conflicts from Statements of Economic Interest that the state requires.

Certainly these documents could require more details, and should.

But we really don’t need to know how much money a candidate makes or which charities she favors.

Unfortunately, this nonsense about releasing tax returns began a few decades ago and has become accepted demagoguery.

The news media gobbles it up because it’s easy to write -- that is, until the returns finally are released and somebody actually has to labor through them.

More important than disclosing tax details is running minimally deceptive ads.

Whitman’s ads have developed a pattern of disingenuousness and distortion.

It started last fall with a radio ad, later abandoned, asserting that state spending had risen 80% “in the last 10 years.” It actually had increased just 27% and, considering inflation and population growth, had declined by almost 17%.

Then three weeks ago, Whitman had to quickly edit her first TV spot to correct the false statement that she’d lived in California 30 years. She had forgotten about her 1990s in Massachusetts.

Last week, she came out with a new radio ad asserting that “spending has been out of control in Sacramento” and “outrageous.”

The claim conveniently ignores the fact that state programs have been slashed $30 billion in the last year. General fund spending has been cut to $86 billion from $103 billion two years ago, and the Legislature and governor are still carving.

In that ad, she complains again about the state adding 40,000 new workers on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s watch, upping the total to 356,000.

True enough, but he’s now trying to eliminate roughly 11,000. And the governor has control over only 202,000 of those employees. The rest are controlled by, for example, the universities, the judiciary and the Legislature.

The biggest increase in staffers was at the prison system because of court orders, inmate population increases and Jessica’s Law, a 2006 voter-approved restriction on where paroled sex offenders can live.

Whitman also charges that many state computers are run on software nearly 30 years old. “That’s not a computer,” she says. “That’s a museum piece.”

But upgrading computers requires money. The state is broke. And Whitman vows not to raise taxes.

Moreover, Adrian Farley, chief deputy honcho for the state’s computer system, says 90% of the machines run modern Windows XP. And although some software is decades-old, it is more efficient than any of the newfangled stuff.

“Some museum pieces are striking to behold,” Farley says.

So what is worse: Distortion or demagoguery? Both are detrimental to democracy. But distortions are harder to detect.