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What a week for California

The Legislature and the governor have gone a record 80 days past their deadline to pass a budget; GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman set a new mark for self-funding by a candidate for office.

September 18, 2010|Tim Rutten

This week, the sad state of California passed two more significant landmarks on the road to complete political dysfunction: The Legislature and the governor went a record 80 days past their constitutionally set deadline to pass a budget, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman set a new mark for self-funding by a candidate for office.

Sacramento's contempt for its legal obligation to pass a state budget is now a routinely unpleasant feature of California life, like fire season and parching Santa Ana winds. Repetition tends to blind us to the particular ways in which each annual budget farce victimizes people up and down the state. It's a moral as well as a legal scandal, and the fact that it not only persists but grows worse each year is an indictment of our politics and the leaders they throw up.

Whitman's case seems — superficially, at least — more novel and complex. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the former EBay chief executive has spent an astonishing $119 million out of her own pocket on her campaign. She already has surpassed the previous record of $109 million that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent to win a third term. And there still are seven weeks to go in her tight race against the state's attorney general and former governor, Jerry Brown.

In fact, Whitman now has spent more of her own money than any American candidate ever has spent running for any office, including president. (Ross Perot set the federal record when he spent just $63.5 million on his failed third-party bid.) Whitman's contributions to herself make her California's biggest political contributor of the past decade, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. The next biggest is film producer/green industrialist Steve Bing, who has doled out $58,050,783 to a wider variety of liberal initiatives and Democratic candidates. Rounding out the top five are three other major self-financiers: Republican Steve Poizner ($43,205,282), Democrat Steve Westly ($41,728,277) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ($25,871,398).

So what's wrong with self-financing?

Whitman's spokesman argues that it will make her "independent of special interests." However, unlike Bloomberg, who took no contributions but his own, Whitman also has been fundraising from all the usual suspects. Her latest campaign finance reports look pretty much like those of a standard, top-of-the-ticket GOP campaign. There are corporate donations from News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, as well as from American Express, Herbalife and Anheuser-Busch. The major law and accounting firms are well represented, as are financial-services and private-equity concerns and property management companies and developers, including Tejon Ranch Co. ($10,000). Auto dealers and their trade associations have been particularly generous, as has the Sycuan Indian tribe of El Cajon.

That's hardly a list that suggests a purposeful independence from the individuals and interests who traditionally spend to obtain access to those with their hands on the regulatory and legislative levers. Moreover, because she's never held any public office, let alone an executive one, there's no record to show how well Whitman can stand up to the pressures those contributors might bring to bear.

Whitman's spending hasn't so much bought her independence as it has earned her a pass on normative party politics. Last spring, Bill Simon Jr. — the Republican candidate who came within five percentage points of defeating Gov. Gray Davis in the 2002 election — told the audience of a panel discussion at UCLA that before the campaign began, Whitman phoned him and said she was entering this year's race and was willing to spend more than $100 million of her own money to win it. In the auction business, that's what you call a "preempt" — and it worked, essentially scaring every serious candidate but Poizner, another record-setting self-financer, out of the campaign.

California now has been through years of muddled gridlock because Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican without governmental experience, can't really negotiate with the Legislature's Democratic majority. That is because he can't deliver any of his own party's votes. Whitman shares his shallow partisan roots but lacks Arnold's celebrity and goofy charm.

Her major budget proposals — she wants to throw 40,000 middle-class state employees out of work with unemployment already running more than 12%, and she advocates abolishing capital gains taxes, thereby further enriching people like herself while income inequality grows and middle-class salaries and wages continue to decline — are neither novel nor evidence of independence. They are, rather, pretty much what her background and base of financial support would predict.

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