"The power of all of us" is the slogan of eBay, the online auction giant. So it’s fitting that Meg Whitman, its former CEO, is mulling over a run for California governor in which she would tap her experience empowering consumers and deploy technology to recapture — and expand — Republican support in the Golden State.
I recently heard Whitman address a gathering of Republicans in San Diego, and while the event was closed to the public, the substance and tone of her remarks reflected recent speeches she’s given to various groups.
Much as Whitman, 52, joined eBay in its infancy in 1998 — think 30 employees and $4 million in revenues — and departed 10 years later after transforming it into the auction giant it is today, she believes that California can be “governable” again. By this, she means revamping the way the state does business and stemming the brain drain and corporate migration from the Golden State.
California now faces a budget deficit of more than $40 billion over the next 18 months, while unemployment has soared to 9.3 percent — second only to Michigan. Whitman blames high taxes and draconian corporate regulation for California’s predicament: Businesses are fleeing in droves to friendlier climates in neighboring Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.
In testimony before the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group, Whitman proposed slashing middle-class marginal income taxes as well as corporate tax rates, which, at 35 percent, are currently second-highest among industrialized countries.
A Princeton graduate and Harvard M.B.A. recipient, Whitman also bemoans the sorry state of education in California, where public policy debates often get bogged down by legislative interests. In a speech last year to the Commonwealth Club, she noted that students in California, once the pride and joy of the American educational system, now routinely rank at the bottom of national surveys. One in four California students drops out of high school, while the Los Angeles Unified School District suffers from a 50 percent high school dropout rate. This trend is simply unsustainable if Californians are to have any hope, as Whitman does, of fueling an economic turnaround through educational training, especially of a technical nature.
Another of Whitman’s well-known attributes is inclusiveness. Her colleague, Cisco CEO John Chambers, praises her “openness, inclusion and her ability to bring out the best in those around her,” all character traits crucial for the GOP’s resurgence. During the 2008 election, two out of every three women in California pulled the lever for Barack Obama. Whitman’s relative youth, technological expertise, pleasant demeanor and, yes, gender sound a more optimistic and appealing note than the average candidate. One recent survey has her leading several Democratic candidates and within the margin of error of Jerry Brown, the 72-year-old attorney general and former governor also considering another run at the office. If the majority of California’s 15 million eBay users support her, she’ll win handily.
For Whitman, inclusion inherently requires deploying new technology to stretch the fabric of the Republican tent. Whitman backed Mitt Romney during the GOP presidential primary and, when he lost, she supported John McCain and served as one of his national campaign co-chairs. Her name was floated as a possible treasury secretary and even, at one point, as a potential vice presidential pick. Although neither Romney’s nor McCain’s campaign was ultimately successful, she absorbed many lessons from the experience, perhaps the most important of which is the power of technology — and social networking sites, in particular — to transform politics.
If Whitman runs, her main competitor in the GOP primary figures to be Steve Poizner, the current state insurance commissioner and another former Silicon Valley CEO. Both Poizner and Whitman are considered social moderates, though only Whitman supported Proposition 8, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. But while Poizner is familiar with the ways of Sacramento and has begun amassing endorsements from prominent Republicans, Whitman is more or less a political outsider, notwithstanding her 2008 campaign experiences.
Mitch Zak, one of Whitman’s spokesmen, said that as governor, Whitman would have no choice, in a blue state like California, but to build relationships and work with Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento, much as former Gov. Pete Wilson and former state Assembly leader Willie Brown forged a productive partnership despite the ideological chasm separating them. Wilson stood firm on his Republican principles, Zak emphasized, but understood that leadership requires reaching across the aisle for the common good.
Either way, Whitman is expected to announce her intentions in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to see if she indeed tries to harness the power of the Web and her business experience into a gubernatorial campaign.
Michael M. Rosen, a Politico contributor, is an attorney and Republican activist in San Diego.