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Whitman unveils conservative positions

The GOP candidate for governor and former chief executive of Ebay displays a sharply conservative approach to the state's financial crisis.

February 11, 2009|Michael Finnegan

CUPERTINO, CALIF. — A day after launching her campaign for governor, former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman on Tuesday unveiled a sharply conservative approach to California's fiscal crisis and offered a fusillade of positions on other issues that are likely to complicate her run for office in 2010.

In a wide-ranging interview, the first-time Republican candidate's demeanor vacillated between that of a confident, take-charge chief executive officer delivering a PowerPoint presentation to that of an ill-at-ease novice who has studied stacks of policy binders, but has yet to master the art of political maneuvering.

"I don't know the answer to that question," Whitman responded when asked her stand on school vouchers, a perennial issue of importance to the conservatives who dominate her party's primary.

Views that could potentially attract or alienate all manner of voters emerged on the subject of gay marriage.

Explaining her support for Proposition 8, the November measure that banned same-sex marriage, she called it a "matter of personal conscience and my faith."

But Whitman, a Presbyterian who supports gay civil unions, said the thousands of same-sex marriages that took place last year before the ban should be legally recognized -- a sentiment opposed by many Proposition 8 backers. Moreover, she said, gay and lesbian couples should be able to adopt children.

Whitman's approach on fiscal matters -- a key element of her pitch to voters -- rested on other seeming contradictions.

At a time when California has frozen tax refunds and halted highway construction to preserve solvency, Whitman, who described herself as a billionaire, said the state should not ask even those in the highest income-tax bracket to pay more.

"One of the things which I'm sure you know," she said, "is that 1% of the people in California pay 50% of the taxes, right? And I am not in favor of raising taxes on anyone right now."

At the same time, Whitman praised former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson for his role in the 1990s budget crisis. She said the tax hikes imposed by Wilson -- whom she described as the greatest California governor in memory -- made sense at the time, even if they would be inappropriate now.

"I trust his judgment back then," she said of Wilson, her campaign chairman.

The interview, which took place at the spartan Silicon Valley office of the company that designed her campaign website, was the first since she announced her candidacy.

Like all Republicans in statewide primaries, Whitman is facing pressure to prove her ideological purity to conservatives who dominate party contests. The pressure is particularly acute for Whitman because of her recent bolt onto the political stage.

A New York native who first moved to California in 1981, she called herself "a lifelong Republican." She waited until 2007 to switch her registration from nonpartisan to Republican, she said, because she believed that the leader of EBay, the Internet auction site, should appear politically neutral. She also wanted to vote in the 2008 GOP presidential primary for her friend Mitt Romney, she said.

Whitman's views have been largely private until now, but the stances she sketched out Tuesday are sure to cause her trouble in both the June 2010 primary and -- were she to win -- the November 2010 general election.

Her embrace of Wilson, still a highly controversial figure a decade after leaving office, may prove difficult for her, as it has for other Republican candidates.

But she also expressed differences with Wilson that may irk those who agree with the former governor.

Besides objecting to higher taxes -- which along with program cuts formed Wilson's solution to the 1990s budget mess -- Whitman also said she would have voted against Proposition 187 had she lived in California when it passed in 1994. The measure, pressed by Wilson as he sought reelection that year, was intended to deny education, healthcare and other public services to undocumented immigrants.

"I would not have been prepared to strip all of those services away from children," she said.

At the same time, however, Whitman said Tuesday that schools, hospitals and law enforcement agencies should be required to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. She later backtracked on schools, saying, "I want to think about that a little bit." She also said she opposed the issuance of drivers' licenses for those in the country illegally.

Whitman also called herself a champion of the environment. But she voiced qualms about California's efforts against global warming, mainly the attempt under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to force car makers to adopt emission standards tougher than the federal government's.

"I would have said, 'Hey listen, let's keep one standard for the country as a whole today; if the economy gets better then let's give those rights to states,' " she said.

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