Reading Meg's Tea Leaf

by Anthony Pignataro | September 23, 2010 3:24 pm

SEPT. 24, 2010

Meg Whitman fascinates me. She’s a former (and quite successful) CEO of a major who until two or three years ago showed precisely zero interest in anything involving elected politics. She didn’t vote or engage in the public arena. Then suddenly, like a bullet being fired from a gun, she was in the middle of California’s open gubernatorial race, promising to spend something approaching $200 million to get elected.

And now us reporters hang on her every word and scrutinize every statement, regardless of how polished and careful and calculated they may be. Like today, in which she (finally) released her long-awaited list of ballot measure endorsements.

Wonderful: another set of tealeaves to read in our endless attempt to figure what exactly she thinks of politics and governance. Is she shoring up her right wing? Is she striking a more moderate position?

Who knows. She’s all over the map ideologically, trying to make every sentence appeal to every group and agenda. Her official opposition statement to Proposition 23, which would suspend the state’s landmark greenhouse gasses law until unemployment drops below six percent, is a prime example.

“While Proposition 23 does address the job killing aspects of AB 32, it does not offer a sensible balance between our vital need for good jobs and the desire of all Californians to protect our precious environment,” Whitman said. “It is too simple a solution for a complex problem.”

Here is Whitman trying to have it both ways. She is pro-business, but also pro-environment. She thinks AB 32 is awful – and would “suspend AB 32 for at least one year while we develop the sensible improvements the law badly needs to protect the jobs of hard working Californians” – but won’t support Prop. 23.

Playing this game is an act of weakness, but it makes her look strong. It also doesn’t alienate anyone – including those working to pass Prop. 23.

Anita Mangels, spokeswoman for pro-Prop. 23 campaign, said that Whitman’s opposition did not surprise her. “She’s been hinting at this for some time,” she said. “But it is very clear that she believes AB 32 is a job killer and needs to be suspended. That’s entirely what Prop. 23 is about.”

Senator Robert Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, is one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of AB 32 and the California Air Resources Board, which will implement the law. “Although well intentioned, I voted against AB 32 because I didn’t have faith that the state could implement it without killing jobs on a massive scale,” he said. “I support any and all efforts to suspend or delay it.”

Dutton, who has endorsed Prop. 23, wouldn’t comment on Whitman’s opposition, but a source with knowledge of his thinking said that he is “pretty confident” that Whitman will indeed suspend AB 32 if she’s elected.

Of course, it’s impossible to say for certain what Whitman will do if elected. Her explanation of the rest of her ballot measure positions offers few clues.

“As I considered the various propositions facing California voters in November, I consulted policy experts and thought carefully about what each proposition would do to help our state immediately start creating the good jobs we need as well as put our state’s financial house back in good order,” she said in a Sept. 24 press release that, for its brevity, packs in a substantial number of clichés. “I urge every voter to study each of these propositions carefully so they can make their own informed decision.”

Who doesn’t agree with any of that? Who finds even a word in those sentences anything other than “sensible”?

Turns out there’s not a lot on the ballot that Whitman likes. Of the nine measures, she only likes three – Propositions 20, 22 and 26. Prop. 20 creates a citizens redistricting commission to handle new congressional boundaries, Prop. 22 bans the state from borrowing municipal redevelopment funds and Prop. 26 requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass any new taxes.

Of the three, Prop. 22 is probably the most controversial, but even that one is a little too wonky to receive much popular or media attention. Supporting these bills costs Whitman little.

And none of those measures Whitman opposes are that popular, Prop. 23 included. The best know proposition, 19, legalizes marijuana, but a Field Poll taken in July shows just 44 percent approval against 48 percent in opposition. Even if Prop. 19 were popular, though, it’s laughable to think it could penetrate the battalion of paid consultants who seem to surround her every minute of every day, choreographing her moves and perfecting her sentences. She may have been a corporate manager once, but now it’s Whitman that’s managed.

-Anthony Pignataro

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