Former EBay chief Meg Whitman addresses an economic forum Tuesday. (Tony Gutierrez, Associated…)
Reporting from Dallas — Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman said Tuesday that her party must change its approach on immigration if it wants to be successful in California.
"My view is that the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful; it's not helpful in a state with the Latino population we have," Whitman said during a brief interview following a speech at a George W. Bush Institute conference on the economy. "We as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration."
In her remarks, among the first made by the former EBay chief since she spent $144 million of her fortune on her campaign loss to Democrat Jerry Brown, Whitman did not offer specific prescriptions.
During the 2010 campaign, Whitman made an unprecedented multimillion-dollar effort to woo Latinos, who made up about one-fifth of the electorate. She aired ads during the soccer World Cup and set up offices in heavily Latino communities such as East Los Angeles.
But the immigration issue dogged her throughout the campaign. Running against a more conservative candidate in the primary, she showcased former Gov. Pete Wilson to establish her credentials among the party's conservative voters. He is viewed as a pariah among some in the Latino community for his vocal support of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants.
Later, during a debate with Brown in Fresno, Whitman told a high-achieving undocumented student that she was taking away a spot from a legal resident. And in the month before election day, an illegal immigrant housekeeper who worked for Whitman for nearly a decade emerged, prompting questions of hypocrisy. In a Los Angeles Times/USC poll taken after the election, 71% of Latino voters said they disliked Whitman.
Whitman declined to say whether she felt any specific action in the campaign fatally wounded her.
"It's hard to know," she said. "The campaign went on for a long time, a really long time. It's hard to point to one thing."
She said she had no regrets about her campaign, whose price tag shattered records for overall spending on a non-presidential race — $180 million — as well as for self-funding.
"I was privileged to run and willingly spent 2 1/2 years…running, and obviously I'm sorry that it didn't turn out the way I had hoped," she said.
She said she doubted she would run for elected office again.
"You never say never, but probably not," Whitman said.
While she would have approached the problems in Sacramento "quite differently" than Brown, Whitman declined to criticize her former rival.
"He won and he deserves the chance to be successful. As a Californian, I want him to be successful," she said, in response to a question posed by an audience member after her speech. "What I hate about American politics is no matter who wins, the very next day, everyone's on them trying to tear them down as opposed to lift them out and hope that they can be successful."
Since election day, Whitman has largely stayed out of the public eye.
"I needed to just take a deep breath, reconnect with my husband, sleep in my own bed," she said in the interview.
She vacationed in Hawaii and New Zealand, and spoke at small private events, before reentering corporate life in January. She joined the boards of Hewlett-Packard, Procter & Gamble and Zipcar, and signed on as a part-time strategic advisor to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. She also joined the board of Teach for America, reflecting what she said was a concern about education that sharpened during the campaign.
Her first major public appearance came Tuesday at the Bush conference, which focused on expanding the U.S. gross domestic product by 4% annually. Her half-hour speech hit many of the themes she raised on the campaign trail — tax, tort, regulatory and education reform.
Whitman said she was heartened by moves in Washington that she believes are focusing the nation's attention on fiscal issues, such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal that calls for dramatically altering Medicare.
Although she doesn't believe the plan can be implemented in its current form, Whitman said, it is forcing a discussion that is desperately needed.
"I do not think, without Paul Ryan's budget, President Obama would be addressing the nation tomorrow night to talk about the debt and the fiscal situation," she said.
Whitman will be returning to the spotlight soon as an advisor on her former boss Mitt Romney's likely presidential run.
She played a similar role in Romney's 2008 campaign, but she said she will be a better advisor and surrogate this time around because of her recent experience.
"Having done this, I am in the unique position of having been in business and now having been in the political arena for 2 1/2 years, so I think my advice will be more grounded in the realities of a campaign," she said.