Meg Whitman’s Other Money
By Peter Schrag
California Progress Report
Because a lot of us have been mesmerized by the obscene amounts of money Republican Meg Whitman has been kicking into her gubernatorial campaign – now totaling about $91 million and likely to approach a staggering $200 million before it’s over – we’ve nearly forgotten the “ordinary” contributors. But they tell a lot about the state of our politics – and indeed about a lot else as well.
According to the latest campaign filings, hundreds of people have written Whitman five-figure checks, many of them at the $29,500 legal limit for individuals, meaning close to $60,000 for couples, and sometimes more when you include contributions from the business and/or children.
Among the notables: Mitt Romney, Ross Perot, Pete Wilson, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Cisco CEO John Chambers, Ford Motor Co. Chairman William C. Ford, none of them surprising on this list. The one who is most surprising is Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban, usually a steady supporter of Democrats, but this time maybe trying to show his irritation over what he regards as his party’s insufficient enthusiasm in its support of Israel, ever and always Saban’s number one cause.
But what’s most striking on the Whitman list are the enormous number of real estate developers and executives of investment and capital management firms. Sooner or later someone may get a great story about the links between them and the former EBay executive, but in the meantime it’s stunning to find that there are so many of these outfits and that even in this recession, they all seem to be doing so well.
Given the overall money mismatch between Whitman and her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown, all comparisons are wildly off the mark. It’s not just that Brown can’t write himself seven-figure checks every few weeks, it’s that even his major contributors – people giving $1000 or more – average much less than Whitman’s, which is to say that on the basis of a rough estimate, Brown might not have been able to spend as much as Whitman even if neither kicked in any money of their own.
As expected, Brown has lots of union contributions, not only from public employee organizations – cops, firefighters, teachers, university professors, janitors – but from grocery clerks, electrical workers and other private sector blue collar organizations. Those groups are not just contributing to Brown, albeit in relatively modest amounts, but running independent expenditure campaigns on his behalf. Also on the list: contributions from Southern California Edison, A.T. and T, the Democratic Party (at over $2 million) and a few Silicon Valley venture capitalists. .
Also on Brown’s list, architect Frank Gehry, former GOP legislator and University of California Regent Bill Bagley, who’s been vocal for some years about his exasperation with his party’s right-wing orthodoxy and, most surprisingly, David Crane, a senior advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s long been a cliché that Democrats are too much beholden to organized labor, and particularly to public sector unions. But if you look at the two lists in this gubernatorial election, and at the money that Whitman is spending, the reason becomes obvious: there’s so much more non-union cash for Republicans that at least in this election at this time, the Democrat would simply be overwhelmed without union support. Both sides are getting money from Indian casinos and other gaming interests but in this megabuck election, it’s hardly noticeable. This is capital against labor.
Whitman’s apparent belief that she can buy the election has long been old news. But it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that in this campaign she may be as much a tool of her money – and of the lavishly-paid campaign consultants she’s bought with it – as the money is a tool of the candidate. Her changes of tune on immigration and her other vacillations are so patently the product of campaign managers, pollsters and admen that no one even bothers to remark on it. She’s created the campaign, now the campaign is creating her.
This will not be the first statewide campaign in which a self-funded candidate with a lot of money is matched against someone with an ordinary amount of money, nor would it be the first in which the big money lost. In 1994, Dianne Feinstein narrowly beat Michael Huffington who spent some $30 million, much of it his own money, a record in a congressional election at that time. Airline executive Al Checchi, spending huge amounts of his own money, lost the 1998 Democratic primary to Gray Davis.
As one veteran California legislator said the other day: the very fact that Brown and Whitman think they can to manage the current California mess should be enough to disqualify them. But apart from their respective qualifications or lack of them, as a measure of egotism, disproportionate ambition and arrogance, the money – the relative amounts, the sources, and how it’s being spent – deserves serious consideration all but itself in choosing between them.
Pacific Gas and Electric spent $46 million in June on a ballot measure to throttle competition from public power, and lost. One hopes that that sent a message. If Whitman, notwithstanding her millions, loses in November, it could underscore that message two hundred million times.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at email@example.com.