Why a billionaire couldn’t buy victory in California

Meg Whitman may have had cash, but at age 72, it was Democrat Jerry Brown’s time for a comeback
Why a billionaire couldn't buy victory in California
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/ Paul Sakuma/AP/ Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At around lunchtime on Oct. 28, California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown releases his itinerary for the home stretch of the campaign. With the vote set for Nov. 2, Brown and his Republican rival, billionaire businesswoman Meg Whitman, have been playing chess with the map, snaking through sun-drenched valleys as they vie for undecideds in the land of high technology and fiscal catastrophe. After a good month, Brown, governor of the state from 1975 to 1983 and its current attorney-general, has a double-digit lead in the polls. His early disclosure seems like a display of contempt, a warning of inevitable checkmate.

Brown’s plan includes a Nov. 1 get-out-the-vote rally on the steps of L.A.’s giant Central Library, an Egyptian-influenced 1920s bizarro-Deco edifice. The library is a natural choice. It signifies all the virtues Democrats, and Brown in particular, see themselves as standing for: intelligence and learning as opposed to instinct and faith; harmony between the civilizations of East and West; the power of public works to beautify the city and elevate the soul.

Almost immediately after the itinerary is announced, however, a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of creatives are standing in front of the main doors, making rectangular frames with their fingers and quizzing each other. The pair confirm that they’re Brown volunteers. Neither Mutt nor Jeff will say much, but obviously camera angles are the problem. The space in which Brown intends to speak is cramped, terraced, tree-filled—awkward for both video and live theatrics. Some would say that’s Jerry Brown in a nutshell: an improvisational dreamer who lets the details sort themselves out.

Brown’s return (he would go on to win) shows how strange things have gotten in California. In the state where the future is forever being born, a man first elected to its highest office at 36 is back again at 72. In the seventies, Gov. Brown waxed poetic about Zen Buddhism and space colonization while putting a fearsome stranglehold on state spending. Californians of all political stripes still remember his asceticism fondly. “He wouldn’t move into the governor’s mansion. He rented an apartment and slept on a mattress,” says Donna, a nostalgic 53-year-old job-seeker eating a bagged lunch in the Maguire Gardens adjacent to the library. “And instead of using the limousine, he drove himself to work”—specifically, in a blue Satellite sedan now preserved for posterity in the California Automobile Museum.

Brown subjected civil servants, schools, and road builders to the same discipline he imposed upon himself. But he was also the governor who first gave California state employees collective bargaining rights—something the previous governor, Ronald Reagan, had refused to consider. In a not-unrelated story, the state’s unfunded pension liabilities are now estimated by the Stanford Institute for Economic Research at half a trillion dollars.

Meanwhile, as Brown was running hard-earned surpluses, local authorities were on a historic tax binge; when Californians “revolted” in 1978 and used their initiative powers to limit property taxes under the state constitution, Brown dutifully stepped in, using his budget to cover front-line services like libraries. The state has been taking on local responsibilities ever since, and while Brown’s budget plan discusses reversing that process, the talk is bound to remain talk until those 1978 changes to the constitution are reversed or significantly mitigated.

The personal computer and the Internet, twin industrial revolutions in which California played an essential role, helped keep the state solvent as its fiscal structure became more and more distorted. Now Californians are looking around anxiously for the next economic quantum leap. Like Donna, they wonder: “Where are the middle-class jobs of the future going to come from?” California, with about 12 per cent of the U.S. population, had an estimated 21 per cent of the country’s foreclosure filings in the third quarter of 2010. Headline unemployment in the state is above 12 per cent, and since California leads the U.S. in discouraged and underemployed workers, things are worse than even that number suggests.

The environment of pervasive anxiety has intensified the fantasyland aspects of California life: the strip-mall usury shops; the huge insta-colleges of dubious provenance; the ubiquitous billboards for lap-band surgery. All of it is set, of course, against a surrealistically well-manicured background, made possible by two masterpieces of engineering: the California Aqueduct and mega-immigration from Mexico. Maybe nothing can save this precarious paradise, but for now Californians are looking for a manager and visionary who can tighten the budget while securing the Golden State’s traditional place at the heart of technological progress.

Brown, who was into alternative energy before alternative energy was cool (or remotely practical), has the credentials. On paper, so does his rival. Whitman, 54, was CEO of eBay during a decade when it went from being a trendy online gadget to serving as the supreme symbol of e-commerce for the common man. Critics note, however, that eBay was already on the verge of an IPO when she joined. The signature move of her tenure was the auction site’s purchase of peer-to-peer voice chat application Skype—a strategically baffling move that ended in painful writedowns, embarrassing lawsuits, and Whitman’s departure.

Whitman is the latest and most extravagant in a growing line of self-funded gazillionaire American politicians. There can no longer be any question that campaign-finance regulation opens a path to power for those rich enough to pay for nearly everything themselves. Some, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, have succeeded. Most, including past California gubernatorial candidates Al Checchi and Bill Simon, didn’t quite make it. Whitman ploughed $141.5 million of her own money into the campaign, a U.S. record; overall, she outspent Brown by a factor of 15 to 1.

Like other self-funders, she made the argument that her wealth guarantees she wouldn’t be beholden to special interests if elected. In the Maguire Gardens, however, they’re not buying that line from the former Goldman Sachs director. “It’s all money, power, and greed,” says legal secretary Annaline, a self-described “child of the sixties.” “I would have liked to vote for a strong woman but I can’t bring myself to do it.” Several interviewees unfavourably contrast Whitman’s use of her fortune with the philanthropy of Bill Gates.

The cash obviously did earn Whitman a hearing. Halfway through September she was level with Brown in the polls. But being a billionaire candidate, she has learned, comes with billionaire problems. The press discovered that she hadn’t registered to vote in California at all over the past 28 years. Her elder son’s unsavoury legal problems—an unsubstantiated date-rape accusation at Princeton, a dropped battery charge arising from a bar brawl in Palo Alto—suddenly became news.

Most damaging: she had an embarrassing, prolonged blow-up over her treatment of a former housekeeper, employed as an illegal alien by Whitman’s family for nine years and discarded right around the time Whitman was consulting with advisers about the gubernatorial run. After a full month of quarrelling by proxy with Nicandra Diaz Santillan in the press, Whitman told Fox News on Oct. 29: “It breaks my heart, but [Diaz] should be deported, because she forged documents and she lied about her immigration status.”

On Oct. 24, a poll for the Los Angeles Times shocked the state by putting Brown 13 points ahead. Four days later, the venerable Field Poll put Whitman 10 points back, twisting the knife after the housekeeper explosion by emphasizing the candidate’s particular weakness among women and Latinos. Anonymous Republicans soon began popping up in the papers to curse the lost opportunity. California traditionally elects Republican governors, but somehow Whitman was fumbling away the state even as a Democratic president fought a recession halfway through his first term in the White House.

Remarkably, Whitman’s heavy spending did not even stop Brown from running circles around her in the advertising battle. The Brown campaign landed repeated blows in that arena, and the most devastating—still on everyone’s lips in the waning days of the race—was surely the ad titled “Echo,” released Oct. 19. In the ad, deft editing makes Whitman look like a brainless parrot as she recites the very same slogans that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used in 2003 and 2006. The Governator’s prestige stands at an all-time low, and California’s collective judgment on his performance is perhaps expressed best by Lou Pizarro, star of OLN reality series Operation Repo, who Maclean’s bumped into in Burbank. “I loved Schwarzenegger—as an actor,” a forlorn Pizarro said.

On Oct. 29 in Bakersfield, an oil town at the south end of the lush Central Valley, Whitman is greeted at the Kern County Museum by protesters driving a smaller parody version of her gigantic green bus, with its campaign slogan “Take Back Sac” (referring to Sacramento, the state capital). The affair is handled somewhat like the closed-casket funeral of a suicide. Whitman staffers use cops to drive various undesirables (including the Maclean’s correspondent) off the grounds of the museum as a campaign staffer snarls, “We own this venue.” At the edge of the force field, the protesters chant: “Hey, hey, Whitman, get out of our town! All that money and you’re 10 points down!” The justification for the straitlaced security becomes clear the next day in the L.A. suburb of Glendale, where hecklers descend on a Whitman bakery visit and disrupt her attempts to chat with customers. Troublingly, it has become impossible for Whitman to act like a normal human being in a venue she does not “own.”

The next day, at Bakersfield’s 24th Street Cafe, the house pushes the pear-chorizo panini while musicians outside strum the tunes of local legend Buck Owens. Republicans are not hard to find here. Jim, a wiry, straight-talking salesman from San Francisco, is voting for Whitman: “Jerry Brown already wrecked this state,” he says. But when asked how he rates Whitman’s chances, he says “Slim and none,” and doesn’t seem too disappointed.

John, a school bus driver and football coach from the nearby farming hub of Wasco, declares himself pro-life, pro-death penalty, and none too big a fan of the delta smelt, the endangered fish that is threatening farmer access to aqueduct water. (“They should just go ahead and build an aquarium for it.”) But John is unsure, three days before the vote, that he’ll vote for Whitman. “A month ago, I would have said yes, for sure.” John seems to have been hit particularly hard by “Echo”; as a hardline social conservative, he has seen enough of the Schwarzenegger style.

Whitman all but admitted her predicament in a late TV ad that had her addressing the camera and using her moist basset-hound eyes to maximum effect. “I know many of you see this election as an unhappy choice between a long-time politician with no plan for the future and a billionaire with no government experience,” she admitted. A capsule version of her biography follows in the remainder of the ad, but its daring opening line (how often does a billionaire actually refer to herself as a “billionaire”?) might stand as an epitaph.

Publicly, Whitman was still clinging to hope on the morning of Election Day. Many Californians don’t make their decisions until the final weekend, when they can settle in with the voluminous state voter’s guide and do their complicated democratic homework. But the labour unions were out in force for their Great Emancipator, and ballot initiative Proposition 19 on marijuana legalization seemed certain to attract some otherwise indifferent liberals, progressives, and single-issue stoners to the polls. In 2010 at least, California looked like something money can’t buy.