Wealth defines California’s Senate, gubernatorial campaigns

Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have spent millions of their own dollars in their quests to become governor and senator. But the money they have poured into television ads and slickly produced events is not the only way their bank balances are helping define their campaigns.

Their Democratic opponents are homing in on the women’s wealth and penchant for private planes and other perks as a way to paint them as being out-of-touch with everyday voters — a return to the class warfare that marks so many campaigns.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer characterized former Hewlett Packard chief Fiorina, the GOP Senate nominee, as someone who accumulated two yachts and saw her salary triple while she laid off tens of thousands of workers.

“A CEO who lays off California workers and sends jobs to China while enriching herself is disastrous at any time, let alone these times. Carly Fiorina never fought for our families, she never tried to,” Boxer said at a recent San Francisco event.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown frequently notes that he is running against a billionaire and intimates that Whitman is trying to buy the governorship.

“I’ve never seen a campaign begin this early,” Brown told reporters Wednesday in San Diego. “Now that’s what happens if you have offshore money accounts and you get Wall Street bonuses and all sorts of special deals. You can take and spend tens of millions. We’re a grass-roots campaign.”

Political observers said that although such arguments are commonly made against wealthy candidates, they are not guaranteed to sway voters.

“In normal times, voters cut a lot of slack to people who have a lot of money,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. It “has to be joined to a few things before it’s really effective — it has to be a period when wealth is unpopular. “

But, he added, “This is not a bad time” for such an argument.

Strategists say that Brown and Boxer and labor allies who are running ads against Whitman are walking a fine line. If they simply attack their opponents for being rich, they risk turning off voters who aspire to climb the economic ladder.

“Among independent voters, it’s one of the least important issues on their mind. They’re concerned about jobs,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist and the publisher of the non-partisan California Target Book. Whitman “is a billionaire, for crying out loud, what do expect her to do, go on Southwest Airlines?”

For such attacks to be effective, history suggests, the candidates must link the wealth to nefarious activities.

“This year, I would link it to Wall Street and big banks, the fact that the elite in the U.S. literally created a recession,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “That connects the dots for people, that answers the question, ‘How does this affect my life? Why should I care?’ ”

It’s an argument that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) used successfully against Republican Michael Huffington in 1994. Feinstein won despite being outspent 2 to 1.

“We basically ran a campaign with the tag ‘He is a Texas oil millionaire that you can’t trust,’ ” Feinstein strategist Kam Kuwata said. “We raised enough doubts about his accumulation of his wealth that it caused a plurality of voters … to vote for Dianne.”

Democrats have been trying to make similar arguments this year.

Boxer routinely criticizes Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, for becoming wealthy as she laid off workers and sent jobs overseas.

Union allies of Brown are airing a television ad that seeks to tie Whitman, the former head of EBay, to controversial practices on Wall Street. After Whitman hired Goldman Sachs to handle EBay’s investment banking business, Goldman began to give her early access to profitable stock offerings. Shareholders later sued and as part of a settlement the candidate had to repay shareholders $1.78 million in profits.

The practice is now outlawed.

“We can’t afford a governor who puts herself before us, no matter how she spins it,” the narrator concludes in the advertisement.

The California Nurses Assn. has been particularly focused on the candidates’ wealth. They send an actress dressed as “Queen Meg” to protest outside Whitman events and make pronouncements such as “Healthcare for the rich, education for the few, prisons for all.”

Representatives of the Republican candidates slammed the attacks as class warfare, and said the efforts show that Boxer and Brown are out of touch with the private sector, where the GOP candidates’ careers flourished.

“An enormous number of Californians came to this state to work hard and become successful just as Meg Whitman did,” Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “If Jerry Brown is going to continue to try to villainize success in the private sector, which has created jobs and improved the lives of so many, so be it, but it actually makes the case for why he is so out of touch with the need of Californians.”

Julie Soderlund, a spokeswoman for Fiorina, agreed.

“It’s ironic Barbara Boxer would attack somebody’s biography and record of success because it’s exactly that kind of success most Americans want for their children,” she said.

A challenge the Democrats face is that although both have modest incomes compared to their opponents, they are well off compared to the average voter. Boxer is a millionaire; Brown and his wife, former Gap executive Anne Gust, have substantial stock and real estate investments, and he has come under fire for living in a $1.8-million Oakland Hills home while talking of frugality. Brown dismissed criticism of what he called a “modest little tree house.”

For their parts, Whitman and Fiorina avoid describing their privileged lives, instead focusing on personal stories that highlight a more universal sense of resilience or frugality.

Fiorina often talks about how she worked her way through college as a Kelly girl and started in the business world as a receptionist; in her book, Whitman wrote about camping as a young girl with her family in a tool shed on the Caribbean island of St. John when they couldn’t rent a campsite.

Few wealthy candidates have been felled by their bank balances. Rather, their collapses were because of failures as neophyte political candidates.

Sabato reached back nearly four decades to recall one exception — Jay Rockefeller’s first run for governor in West Virginia in 1972. His rival, Republican Arch Moore, successfully painted the oil heir as a carpetbagger and Rockefeller lost.

In 1980, the two clashed in the governor’s race again, and Republicans plastered cars with bumper stickers that said “Make Him Spend It All Arch.” A Democratic response soon appeared, “At Least It’s His,” and Rockefeller won after spending 20 times more than Moore.

That back and forth is echoing in today’s California governor’s race. Brown talks about Whitman’s unprecedented spending and Whitman counters that her self-funding means she is beholden to no one while Brown will owe fealty to the unions if elected.

“That’s a good answer … I’m nobody’s man but yours,” Sabato said. “It’s an old slogan in politics. Of course, it’s never true.”

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.