The candidates fighting to become California’s next governor each faced stumbles in recent days, but the polar-opposite ways in which Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown dealt with the fallout say much about their personalities and the campaign machines they’ve built.
Whitman faced revelations that she reportedly paid a $200,000 settlement to an EBay employee after shoving her during a confrontation in 2007, when Whitman led the online auction house. Her campaign issued two clipped statements and the candidate remained out of the public eye, as she had planned to do before the New York Times published the accusation.
Brown, facing criticism after comparing Whitman’s campaign to that of a Nazi propaganda minister, unintentionally kept the story alive with a series of somewhat disjointed remarks during appearances in which the former governor took myriad media questions.
The reactions echo the candidates: the buttoned-down, corporate crises communications mode employed by Republican Whitman, compared with the responses by Democrat Brown, whose free-wheeling approach was a trademark of both his past campaigning and governing styles.
“Whitman is far more corporate … and is a much more scripted person,” said Democratic strategist Kam Kuwata. “Brown exposes himself to you all the time; he’s not protected.”
As much as they illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, the reactions also underscore the aggression and priorities of their campaigns in tamping down their own problems and exacerbating their opponent’s.
“It’s not only a statement about how the campaigns respond to their own candidate’s behavior, it is a statement about how effective the campaigns are at keeping these stories alive,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican consultant. “In my experience, when you take instances like these, which have as equal a chance of dying down in 24 hours as living for a week, it becomes the opposition campaign that really plays the role in keeping them alive.”
The Whitman controversy remained in the news for only about 36 hours after it was first reported June 14. It helped that the incident occurred three years ago, while Brown’s comments were new. Also, the employee who was allegedly shoved and received the six-figure settlement still works for EBay and put out a statement commending Whitman’s handling of the matter.
“It’s helpful that the shovee said nice things about Whitman,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and former GOP national official. “With $200,000, you better say nice things.”
The Brown campaign did not push the matter, and Brown himself refused to discuss it when asked by a reporter on Tuesday.
“Jerry has routinely said he would like this to be a campaign on the issues,” said Sterling Clifford, Brown’s spokesman. “And you know, I think it’s not unusual he would decline to comment about a non-issue-related story.”
Whitman’s campaign put out a statement from the candidate and one from a spokesperson that acknowledged that some sort of dust-up had occurred but did not admit that it became physical. The statements framed the matter as par for the course in the high-flying business world.
Whitman’s invisibility afterward may have been coincidental, but it was nonetheless in keeping with a campaign trail persona that more resembles that of the corporate chieftain she was than the politician she has become.
Her events are orchestrated, invitation-only affairs; the candidate is flanked by bodyguards and often reads from a hidden prompter, and the occasional protester is forcibly removed. Her script and her team are highly controlled, although her months-long refusal to take questions from reporters has eased recently.
Whitman did no interviews after the reports appeared about the physical altercation. Her spokesman Tucker Bounds dismissed that as “coincidental.”
“Meg has public events planned in the near term, and I’m confident you’ll be speaking with her soon,” he said.
By contrast, Brown has barely stopped talking since his comparison of Whitman’s campaign tactics to those of Joseph Goebbels surfaced on a news blog June 10.
The comments have continued to make headlines in part because of the Whitman campaign’s efforts. Her large staff, which include veterans of presidential campaigns and teams of opposition researchers and communications specialists, has trumpeted Brown’s remarks, blasting out seven e-mails over eight days with the latest developments.
But Brown kept the matter in the spotlight himself simply by answering questions, a response that seemed reasonable but served to regularly give the story new oxygen.
His campaign responded to the initial report more than a week ago by confirming that the comments were accurate, but insisting that they were taken out of context and that Brown did not believe that Whitman was comparable to Goebbels. Days later, at a public event, Brown said in response to a reporter’s question that he was sorry that Jewish leaders were upset by the comments.
And two days after that, Brown struck a defensive tone in a radio interview, saying he thought the initial comments were off the record. Brown made the remarks when he ran into a CBS reporter while exercising in the Oakland Hills. Brown said the reporter did not take notes or record the conversation, though Brown has not disputed the content.
Observers said Brown could have ended the brouhaha if he had made one simple, direct apology — and stopped talking.
“In a campaign, you get three or four really stupid things to say. Everyone gets a few of those, they’re like Monopoly money,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “When they happen, you just own up and say, ‘Boy, did I make a fool of myself.’ ”
Even his supporters say Brown, who has never been a traditional, constrained, talking-points politician, needs to be cautious.
“That’s Jerry being Jerry, and that comment was unfortunate, no question about it,” said Dan Newman, spokesman for Level the Playing Field 2010, a union coalition that is working to defeat Whitman. “He needs to find the right balance between being authentic, interesting and engaging without letting his sarcasm and quirky sense of humor get him in trouble.”
Brown’s campaign said his statements were answers to questions that were posed to him.
“Jerry has always been willing to answer questions, and he sees engaging with the public and the press as one of his responsibilities as a public figure and a candidate for office,” his spokesman Clifford said. “The Whitman campaign has her hidden away, and they seem to believe that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to her.”
But even Brown acknowledged that he has to reconsider his usual approach, given the new media landscape that allows bad news to reverberate endlessly through blogs and news sites.
“I got the message. I can’t really ever say anything just musing in my mind,” he said Thursday in the radio interview. “But it really does mean that politicians are always very controlled and not very spontaneous in their communications.”