FROM SACRAMENTO — One of the more damning and insulting words in the family dictionary is "arrogant." It's normally used behind the subject's back. In public, it should be deployed guardedly, even by a politician.
Generally, when someone tosses around that adjective, the hurler had better be on solid ground and not living in a glass house, or mansion.
So it was a bit grating recently to read that billionaire political novice Meg Whitman had called state civil servants "selfish and arrogant" in officially announcing her candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
She repeated virtually the same derogatory description of state workers at the California Republican Party's convention the next weekend in Indian Wells.
Whitman didn't call them civil servants, of course. She used the time-tested conservative, red meat pejoratives "bureaucrats" and "bureaucracy."
This is how she put it to supporters at her formal campaign kickoff in Fullerton:
"Every year, we pay more to sustain an out-of-control state bureaucracy -- a wasteful bureaucracy, out of touch with the needs of Californians. And a selfish and arrogant bureaucracy, unwilling to give an inch even in the toughest of economic times."
Never mind that most state employees are enduring three unpaid furlough days a month, a roughly 14% wage cut saving the state $2.2 billion this fiscal year. The workers don't like it, but they're not yet marching on picket lines.
For months, Whitman has been promising to slash the state payroll "by at least 40,000 employees," returning it to the level of 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first year in office.
Well, good luck with that.
The state workforce totals about 363,000 full-time equivalent slots, according to the Finance Department. Of those, however, only 203,000 are under the governor's control. The other 160,000 are controlled by, for example, the universities, the retirement systems, the judiciary and the Legislature. Whitman would be powerless to lay off professors, investment managers, court clerks or legislative aides.
No problem, her campaign says. She'd use the governor's line-item veto power to cut budgets by the equivalent salary amounts and force the universities, for example, to choose between firing professors and raising student fees. Again.
The biggest employment growth under the governor's control -- in fact, in all of state government -- has been in the prison system. Roughly 16,000 employees have been added since 2004, the administration says, because of court orders, prison population increases and enforcement of Jessica's Law, a 2006 voter-approved restriction on where paroled sex offenders can live.
At the Republican convention, Whitman announced she'd exempt prison guards, highway patrol officers and firefighters from her layoff notices. So that reduces her potential firing pool by at least 48,000.
She realizes that 40,000 workers can't be laid off immediately, her campaign says. The down-sizing is a first-term goal. She'll figure it all out after she takes office.
Right! This I know: Any significant payroll slashing -- in fact, the fulfilling of other campaign promises as well -- would require a cooperative workforce. And running for the boss job by calling the worker bees selfish and arrogant isn't a sound management practice, whether in the public or the private sector.
A governor or CEO shouldn't be beholden to any union or employee group. And certainly labor leaders can be arrogant. But the workers should be treated civilly, with respect, particularly if they're not threatening you.
Moreover, who is Whitman to be calling civil servants arrogant? What's her credibility? How many times has she even stepped inside a state office except to schmooze a governor?
"Bureaucrats" have always been easy political targets. But so is Whitman.
I don't know her and have no idea whether she comes across as arrogant in person. She can be charming on TV. Some of her ideas sound good.
But some people might consider it arrogant to think you're qualified to be governor of the nation's most populous, most complex state despite never having served in any government position. Not on a school board or even a local commission.
Being the chief executive of EBay is very impressive. But it's no substitute for having acquired knowledge and honed political skills by tussling with city councils or serving in some lower level elective office -- and constantly operating in the public glare while trying to peddle your ideas.
California's political graveyards are littered with wannabe governors who fantasized about using their vast fortunes to buy the top job without first paying any dues.
And not only did Whitman shun the political ladder, she has hardly ever used the ballot box. Or the convenient absentee ballot. Now 53, she didn't even register to vote until 46, the Sacramento Bee reported. She didn't become a Republican until two years ago.
An "atrocious" record, Whitman now admits. "I was focused on raising a family, on my husband's career, and we moved many, many times. It is no excuse. My voting record . . . is unacceptable."
Yes. And this is what the record indicates: Whitman felt she had more important things to do than participate in democracy's most basic civic duty. She couldn't be bothered. Had little interest in public policy.
Now she wants to be governor. Is that arrogant?
If Whitman wants to whack the public payroll, that's a legitimate policy debate. But ridiculing middle-class workers as arrogant smacks of arrogance in itself. It's definitely cheap political demagoguery.