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Fiorina presents a sharp contrast in images

Some see the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from California as a pompous diva, but friends cite a lighter side. Her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard gets mixed reviews.

October 22, 2010|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

One night a few years back, a California communications executive named Deborah Bowker was worried about her husband, who was sick and hospitalized. An old friend told her she shouldn't be alone, that she should come over and stay the night.

The guest bedroom at the friend's house was used most often by grandchildren, and contained two tiny beds. That night, Bowker was crying herself to sleep in one of them when the door cracked open. Without a word, Carly Fiorina padded across the room and crawled into the other bed.

Bowker and Fiorina have been close friends since they went to MIT together, and little changed for 20 years — until Fiorina decided to run for the U.S. Senate, with Bowker as her chief of staff.

That fretful night doesn't seem like a big deal now. Bowker's husband recovered, and Fiorina might not even remember it, Bowker said with a laugh. Bowker said she hadn't told the story before and wasn't sure why she was telling it now — except that she hardly recognizes Fiorina in the image that's been created through the veneer of politics.

Those closest to Fiorina, 56, describe her as loyal and fun-loving, witty and bright. But they are well aware of the other image — of a pompous diva, aligned with the most strident factions of her Republican Party, pampered by a golden parachute after being fired from her high-profile job.

Fiorina the candidate hasn't always helped matters. Her tone on the stump can be caustic. At one point in her dogged campaign against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer, an open microphone caught her belittling Boxer's hair as "so yesterday."

In a sneering attempt to connect with a "tea party" crowd near Fresno recently, she referred to San Francisco — the center of the metropolitan area where she spent nearly half of her life, the city just up the road from her 5,400-square-foot Los Altos Hills estate — as "that faraway world."

And her critics tend to roll their eyes when Fiorina — who was raised on opera and French lessons, was the daughter of a powerful judge and has a sterling academic pedigree — pitches herself as a kind of Horatio Alger. Her journey, she said at one recent campaign event, was "only possible in the United States of America."

Getting to know the person friends call "the real Carly," meanwhile, can be a confounding task. Stung by several episodes in her life, including the unraveling of her first marriage and the brouhaha surrounding her firing from Hewlett-Packard, where she was chief executive, president and chairman, she is private and guarded.

Fiorina's work ethic is legendary, and her discipline is one reason Boxer — a lioness of the left seeking her fourth Senate term — is in arguably the toughest race of her career. But Fiorina can be so on-message that she comes across as a machine.

During a recent heat wave, Fiorina met with business leaders in a sweltering City of Industry warehouse. A visitor joked that the record heat might cause her to rethink her position on global warming. Fiorina was not amused, launching instantly into her talking points about climate change — contending that she reserved the right to "challenge the science."

On the campaign trail, it can be difficult to envision the Fiorina who could often be found dancing with the interns and the secretaries at the end of corporate parties, long after the other executives were gone. Or the woman who, on a recent boat trip, suddenly disappeared; she had jumped off the stern and hauled herself onto a tiny raft with her step-granddaughters.

Friends say she's a fair cook and has a nice touch on the piano. She was raised Episcopalian but is not a regular churchgoer. She does Jane Fonda-style aerobics, whether she's home or on the road.

She reads policy briefs on her iPad but reads books the old-fashioned way. She's a voracious shopper, said one friend of 20 years, and gave one Hong Kong jeweler enough business that he put her picture in the window. She has at her disposal a household net worth estimated as high as $121 million and yachts on both coasts, and will be one of the wealthiest members of Congress if she wins.

She and her husband, Frank Fiorina, a former AT&T executive with blue-collar roots in Pittsburgh, have been married for 25 years. It is a second marriage for both; she calls him a "hunk" with some frequency.

Last fall, she threw him a sock-hop-themed 60th birthday party, tracking down friends he hadn't seen in 30 years. Fiorina was stylish as ever, said an old friend, Kathy Fitzgerald, in a black dress and textured stockings — and, since she was being treated for breast cancer, bald.

Cara Carleton Sneed was born in Austin, Texas. Her mother, a talented oil painter, was a refugee from a troubled childhood in Ohio. Her father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, was a University of Texas law professor whose ambition in academia meant that she was perpetually "the new kid," she wrote in her autobiography, as the family moved repeatedly.

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