Whitman's impenetrable bureaucracy
September 1, 2010
SEPT. 1, 2010
By ANTHONY PIGNATARO
The Meg Whitman for Governor Campaign is like the Pentagon – or possibly even the NORAD command bunker – of political operations. Its headquarters in Cupertino is highly secured, with all access absolutely restricted. Staffers, except those specifically paid to deal with the media, are forbidden from talking to reporters. Even the vast majority of the 70-odd private consultants paid by Whitman for Governor refuse to say anything at all – even on background – about the inner-workings of what has to be the biggest, most expensive campaign in California political history.
I’m not the only who’s curious, either. “What are the consultants and staffers doing?” a Republican political adviser not currently working on the Whitman Campaign asked me rhetorically. “I don’t know. She has a lot of them, though. At one time she had policy advisers on global warming. But I’ve never seen an organizational chart. I assume there is one…”
During the week I spent attempting to catch more than a passing glimpse inside the Whitman machine I was rebuffed at every turn, rejected at every call. On Monday I was shown the door by one very nice receptionist for one of the many, many consultants I’ve been calling for the last week, and as I left I couldn’t help thinking about how I was probably going to get the same treatment at the next office I visited (I was wrong – security never even let me get up to that consultant’s floor). I have no idea how many voice mail messages I left, or how many games of phone tag I played with Whitman campaign spokespeople, who are paid to talk to the media and thus don’t count for this story.
Of the dozen or so Whitman consultants I contacted, David Reade of tiny DSR Enterprises in West Sacramento was the only one who spoke to me on the record. “I’m a small cog in the whole enterprise,” said Reade, who stopped getting paid by the campaign after the primary but still works on a volunteer basis building grass roots coalitions.
Other consultants acted as though their lives would be in danger, even if they spoke without attribution.
“I wish I could help you,” he said very nicely but firmly. “I would love to, but I’m not able to talk to you. You’ll have to call the campaign.”
Another consultant became very nervous when reached by phone. “I don’t feel comfortable even talking about this on the phone,” he said. “I’d have to look at my contract to see if I can even talk to you.”
Then I got a tip that the Whitman Campaign would set up at a table at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market in Oakland last Saturday. Thinking it would be a great chance to surreptitiously interview a few Whitman volunteers, I headed west. While my trip exposed me to organic Himalayan cuisine, some pretty delicious strawberries and a bumper sticker proclaiming that “The only Bush I trust is my own,” I found no Whitman table.
Visiting the Whitman campaign headquarters, located in a Cupertino office park, was a non-starter. “We don’t generally have reporters come to our office,” said campaign spokesman Darrel Ng, who refused to even tell me how many people were working in the office when I called. “It’s not a trivial amount of work to go over everyone’s desk and remove sensitive material.”
Contacting the campaign directly and simply asking to speak to a campaign worker proved to be a bitter joke. My phone call to the campaign’s press office spurred a quick, though not particularly helpful, e-mail from Ng.
“All the information you’re looking for is in the campaign finance documents in terms of staff, etc. as required by law,” Ng wrote me. “We do not plan on making staff available for interviews. If you have questions for spokespeople, we are happy to answer them. Thanks!”
But the Whitman campaign has for months now refused to answer a series of email questions from CalWatchdog, let alone give us a chance to interview Whitman in person or on the phone.
After talking briefly with Ng on the phone (and doing a lot of pleading that I wasn’t trying to dig up dirt on the campaign but only wanted to talk to someone who could give me a ground-level look at the operation to make former eBay CEO Meg Whitman governor of California) Ng relented slightly by offering to “ask around” the headquarters to see if any volunteer would talk to me.
That was Aug. 27. His answer finally arrived late Aug. 30: “I searched high and low, but I was unable to find somebody who was willing to talk to CalWatchdog,” he e-mailed. “Sorry.”
In retrospect, none of this should have surprised me. And it didn’t surprise one long-time Republican activist and consultant who isn’t currently working on the Whitman campaign. “I think what’s happened is exactly what happened when she was at eBay,” the consultant, who requested anonymity, said. “She surrounded herself with vice presidents, and here she’s got lots of consultants.”
There are a couple dangers in this arrangement, the consultant noted. First, that the campaign has become unwieldy – much like the state of California has become.
“They have more paid bodies than anybody else,” the consultant said. “And if you do have all these paid bodies, then they have to do something to justify their existence. In that way they’re very much like a bureaucracy. Everyone has to find things to do. But when you have a big staff, it’s hard to start steering the big ship and respond to events you didn’t plan.”
Like the Oakland press conference she called back in March. Everything was great, until Whitman shunned the reporters her campaign had invited, forcing her to call a second press conference a few days later.
More ominously was the threat of insulation. “One thing Whitman has in common with the current governor is that she’s insulated,” the consultant said. “If you’re insulated by the bureaucracy, how do you provide leadership?”
The dollar amounts Whitman for Governor is paying to its legion of consultants and strategists are staggering. In just the four weeks between late May and late June of this year (the most recent campaign finance report available at the California Secretary of State’s office at press time), Whitman’s campaign paid $27,000 to the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, $15,000 to Mitch Zak (whose employer, Jeff Randle, was Whitman’s first consultant, having signed on way back in 2007), $15,000 to MB Public Affairs, $20,000 to Stutzman Public Affairs and $17,500 to Wendy Warfield & Associates.
Officials from none of those firms would comment for this story. And that’s a few of Whitman’s Sacramento consultants. Dallas-based Scott Howell & Co., which makes very slick campaign commercials, brought in $100,000 during that period. Fund-raising firm Blue Swarm of Westfield, Mass., earned $40,000. Whitman for Governor also gave $20,000 to Von Hart Films in Calabassas and $90,000 to Bonaparte Films of Los Angeles, all in the same period (none of these firms chose to comment for this story, either).
Keep in mind that’s just a month-long snapshot of a few of Whitman’s consultants. And the campaign is very sensitive about these massive dollar amounts. A perfect example of this is the campaign’s reaction to my attempt to reach Mike Murphy.
He’s a campaign consultant for Whitman whose tasks and work aren’t well defined. Steve Poizner was apparently under the impression that Murphy would work on his campaign, but not long after Whitman reportedly invested $1 million in Murphy’s new company Tools Down! Productions in 2008, Murphy signed on with Whitman’s crew.
After noticing that Murphy is in charge of Bonaparte Films, which is cited above, I e-mailed Murphy to ask what sort of work Bonaparte – and he – were doing for the campaign. Murphy never replied, but within hours of my inquiry, Tucker Bounds, Whitman’s chief spokesman, e-mailed back.
“Mike Murphy mentioned that you were interested in making some inquiries of the campaign,” Bounds e-mailed. “Anything I can help with?”
After thanking Bounds for his prompt reply, I wrote back that I was merely trying to talk to Murphy about the work he and his company were doing for the Whitman campaign, and that I’d appreciate any help he could provide in arranging for me to talk with Whitman campaign workers.
Bounds never replied. And the tight lips and steely rejections have irked more than media.
“The campaign reminds me very much of Arnold (Schwarzenegger),” said one conservative political activist. “They’re just hostile to conservatives, conservative ideals. There’s this arrogant attitude where they just take us for granted, even though we’re the ones who walk the precincts.”
In fact, at least some conservatives seem to be getting fed up with their treatment at the hands of the Whitman campaign. And a few are willing to go public with that resentment.
“There are conservatives, and not just social conservatives, who’d rather have four years of (Jerry) Brown in order to get eight years of a conservative afterward,” said Karen England, executive director of Capitol Resource Institute, a Sacramento-based grass roots organization that lobbies on abortion, gay marriage and other social conservative issues. “There isn’t going to be much of a difference between Brown and Whitman. But you know who came after (former President Jimmy) Carter? Ronald Reagan.”
For England, the attitude and approach of the campaign – which clearly seems to reflect Whitman’s own run-government-as-a-business philosophy – doesn’t portend a happy future for the state. “The Legislature isn’t like a business; you can’t give them incentives, and you can’t fire them if they don’t get stuff done,” she said.