Meg Whitman is campaigning for governor as a political outsider, but behind the scenes she is playing classic political hardball in her quest for the Republican nomination.
She tried to push her chief GOP opponent, Steve Poizner, out of the primary contest with a consultant’s threat to wage a negative ad campaign that would destroy his career. Her advisors have worked, with some success, to siphon away Poizner supporters, orchestrating calls by former Gov. Pete Wilson and others for the party to unite -- four months before the primary election -- behind her candidacy.
And Whitman’s team warned labor leaders that if they gave money to Democratic operatives planning to attack her, the billionaire candidate would respond by spending millions to qualify a ballot initiative that would make it harder for unions to use dues for political purposes.
Observers say Whitman’s embrace of rough-and-tumble politics should surprise no one, given her track record as the hard-nosed former chief executive of EBay.
“She’s coming from a world that’s absolutely a hardball world,” said Thad Kousser, a visiting professor at Stanford University who specializes in state politics. “And anybody who thinks you don’t become a politician being the CEO of a major corporation is crazy.”
Asked about the tough moves by Whitman and her aides, her spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said her campaign “is committed to putting her in the most effective position” to explain her vision for improving California. He said talking to voters is her main focus.
Political analysts say Whitman’s use of her wealth to intimidate her opponents -- she’s moved $39 million of her own money into her campaign -- can backfire if voters believe she is trying to buy the election. Wealthy executives have won as political newcomers elsewhere but have largely failed in California.
The image of Whitman, 53, using her riches as a club was on display this month when Poizner -- himself a multimillionaire -- released an e-mail to his camp from her consultant, Mike Murphy. It said she could spend $40 million “tearing up” Poizner, also 53.
“It’s arrogance,” said K.B. Forbes, a GOP communications consultant who is not working in California at the moment. “It’s going to turn off the electorate.”
But so far, Whitman’s overall strategy seems to be working. She has closed in on Democrat Jerry Brown in polls. She remains well ahead of Poizner, and is widely seen as the probable Republican nominee. She spent $19 million last year on the campaign, running radio and television ads for months without any of her rivals on the air.
Whitman has bought the expertise of an army of seasoned consultants who have carefully stage-managed her appearances since some early gaffes, such as her admission last year that she made “a mistake” by failing for years to vote.
Reporters buttonholed her in the Bay Area this month to ask about accusations by Democrats that she wanted to “crown” herself governor. “I’m running a smart, strategic campaign,” Whitman answered, and dashed off.
The next evening, she took questions from a friendly audience in Los Angeles but not from the few reporters who showed up. Whitman did not respond to an interview request for this article.
The campaign has absorbed criticism for dodging the news media without backing down, much as Whitman often did at EBay when users protested moves such as steep fee increases for auctioneers.
And when EBay outgrew its San Jose headquarters, Whitman threatened in land negotiations with city officials to move out of Silicon Valley.
The officials let EBay buy land for which the city had other plans, persuading the firm to stay.
In 2008, she discovered that a Santa Monica man, Tom Hall, had purchased several Internet domain names that Whitman wanted, including Meg2010.com.
She hired a white-shoe law firm to accuse him of “cyber squatting” and demand that he surrender the domain names, Hall told reporters then.
When he refused, Whitman’s legal team argued the case before a United Nations arbitrator in Switzerland, and lost.
She also filed suit against Hall in federal court but, after a year of litigation, obtained the domain names in a settlement that Hall said he was “very happy” with but was not permitted to discuss.
Democrats are trying to counter Whitman’s tactics with some hardball moves of their own. They have formed several campaign committees to attack her and support Brown, saying they would have the financial backing of labor.
But Whitman’s advisors promptly informed leaders of deep-pocketed unions, including the powerful California Teachers Assn. and the Service Employees International Union, that funding attacks against her would bring retaliation.
She would help qualify an anti-union measure, known as the “paycheck protection initiative,” proposed for November’s ballot.
The measure, if passed, would take away labor groups’ ability to deduct dues from paychecks for political use without a member’s express permission. So far, the biggest unions have not jumped into the Democratic campaigns, and Whitman recently filed a complaint accusing one of the Democratic groups, called Level the Playing Field 2010, of several violations of state election law.
Jason Kinney, a consultant with Level the Playing Field 2010, called the charges frivolous and said that showing she can play rough won’t win the race for Whitman. Once voters, the media and her opponents begin scrutinizing her past and her policy positions more closely, he said, “she’s going to have to start answering some real questions.”
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