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Whitman could have given us a slice of the pie

$141 million can buy a lot of pizza, but can it buy public office?

October 27, 2010|Steve Lopez

With a week to go until election day, this is no time for a candidate to let up or take anything for granted in the run for governor. In other words, if I were a billionaire who hadn't voted in decades, but I'd spent $141 million trying to buy your vote, I wouldn't put my wallet away with less than a week to go.

I'd make it an even $150 million, or maybe more. Why leave any doubt that I gave it my best shot?

It's Meg Whitman, of course, who dropped all those shekels, along with another $20 million from donors. Not surprisingly, she leads the pack in spending among the year's crop of gubernatorial candidates, who have together dished out more than $200 million on the primary and general elections.

You remember Steve Poizner, right? He coughed up $24 million of his own money hoping you'd at least recall that he was the guy who got blown out by Whitman in the Republican primary.

And then there's Jerry Brown, the Democrat who's already been governor twice but is like a junkie who can't kick the habit. His campaign slogan might as well be "Vote for me or I'll keep running until I'm 90." Brown is leading in the polls if not the spending tabulations, with roughly $25 million already spent and $11 million more in the bank.

Sure, the candidates have to sell themselves, and that's an expensive proposition in a big state. But have those staggering expenditures told us anything we didn't know, or convinced us that either Brown or Whitman has a workable plan to improve schools, balance budgets, boost the economy or address the structural flaws that have led to legislative paralysis and proposition madness?

If so, I missed it.

What we know is that Whitman would be more inclined to go easy on business and Brown would be more inclined to go easy on the public employee unions that have spent more than $20 million trying to get him elected.

Together, Poizner, Brown and Whitman have spent enough on their campaigns to cover a huge chunk of the recent state budget cuts, say the $10 million slashed from community clinics, the $6.4 million from services to low-income seniors, the $25 million from economic development, the $132 million from services for seriously emotionally disturbed students, the $18 million from drug treatment and $22 million from Medi-Cal.

I couldn't help but notice that Whitman's expenses have included $90,000 a month for a political strategist. Is this really the woman we want managing our tax dollars?

As I wrote in a Tuesday posting on the Times website, I've been thinking lately about how Whitman could have better spent her money. Here's one idea: Domino's Pizza is running a special. For $11.98, you get two medium pies with two toppings each. For $140 million, Whitman could have sent two pizzas to every household in California.

I'm not suggesting Whitman doesn't have every right to spend her money as she pleases, as her defenders noted, and some readers warned that a Brown victory would mean that public employees could continue to retire early with six-figure pensions paid for by you and me.

I'm just saying that there might have been more winning ways for Whitman to use the Meg-a-millions she has spent thus far, given the fact that Brown has spent one-sixth as much and appears to have an edge in the latest polls.

Readers had lots of ideas:

Oscar checked in to say Whitman should have bought 140 million $1 tacos.

That's four tacos for each and every California resident.

I'd have voted for her twice.

"She could have spent over $40,000 on each and every school in California on Program Improvement Status under No Child Left Behind," wrote a reader named Anthony.

She "could have stocked every food bank in California to the rafters AND hosted another medical/dental free clinic at the Staples Center," said DeeCal.

"This just proves that you can't buy an election," wrote Jason, who has a point.

Money is still the mother's milk of politics and politicians, but if Whitman loses, she will join a long list of wealthy Californians who unsuccessfully spent vast personal fortunes trying to get elected governor.

The Biggest Losers, if you will, include Poizner, Bill Simon, Steve Westly, Al Checchi and Jane Harman.

Whitman, however, puts them all to shame, having spent more of her own money on her campaign than any candidate in U.S. history. Frankly, I don't think the spending is as big a problem as her inability to connect with enough voters on the strength of her personality or her policies.

The 48-page policy pamphlet she touted during the primary was the rough equivalent of a political coloring book, half of it photos and charts. If Whitman's remarkable success in business was her selling point, you'd think she could have made a stronger and more detailed case for economic development, especially given the fact that Brown has left such a huge leadership void by playing it safe.

It ain't over yet. But if Whitman loses next week, all she will have taught us is that the economy is so bad, you can't buy a job.

Not even for $141 million.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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