By Dan Balz
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Meg Whitman owes the voters of California more than an apology.
The successful former CEO of eBay is a Republican candidate for governor in 2010. She is running as someone who will bring the skills of the boardroom to the serious economic problems afflicting her adopted home state. Because of her success in the business world and the personal fortune she's prepared to invest in the race, she is one of the leading candidates to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
But the formal launch of her candidacy last week was disrupted by a damaging report in the Sacramento Bee. Though Whitman seeks to lead one of the biggest and most troubled governments in the world, when it comes to politics, she has been -- to put it kindly -- an absentee citizen for much of her adult life.
The Bee article examined Whitman's voting record in California and in the other states where she has lived since becoming eligible to vote. The Bee said that Whitman had voted infrequently in the past half-dozen years and that it could find no evidence she was even registered to vote before 2002.
Whitman disputed that last finding, saying she had been registered before 2002. Rather than producing the evidence, she challenged the paper to find it. Whether county voting records dating back 10, 15 or 20 years are complete enough or accurate enough to resolve that dispute isn't clear. Nor is it really a necessary question, for there is no doubting that Whitman has a poor record as a voter.
In recent years, as she has made the transition from business executive to politician, Whitman has become a more consistent voter. On her campaign Web site, she declares that "we all love California too much to let it fail." But for unexplained reasons, she took a pass from participating in two of the most important elections that have shaped California's politics this decade.
In 2003, she skipped the recall election that ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and installed Schwarzenegger. Few elections in the state's history have attracted as much attention, with about 9 million people voting. Not Whitman.
She also did not vote in the 2005 special election in which Schwarzenegger was badly defeated in his attempt to win approval for initiatives designed to reform the political and governing process, including one that would have given the governor more power to constrain state spending.
Though she did not bother to participate in that election, she has said that, if elected, she would actively use the initiative process to try to fix a state that has become almost ungovernable. What did she learn from Schwarzenegger's experience with the initiative process?
Whitman also pledges to cut at least $15 billion in spending, though without some of the powers Schwarzenegger was seeking. Would she seek similar powers as those the incumbent sought, and if not, how would she deal with a Democratic-controlled legislature that often has other priorities?
Certainly not every citizen has a perfect record of voting in national, state and local elections. Nor do some people who have sought election to office. Schwarzenegger did not vote in the 1996 and 2000 presidential primary or general elections. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a prospective Republican candidate for Senate in California next year, skipped the presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004 and the primary and general elections in 2006.
Failure to vote from time to time is understandable and has rarely been seen as disqualifying for those seeking public office. But Whitman's record appears to go beyond occasional absences. Setting aside the question of whether she was registered before 2002, her slender record is striking for its apparent indifference to the political process.
Given the state of the state, the California governor's race will be among the most important in the country next year. Whitman has two rivals for the GOP nomination: state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former congressman Tom Campbell. The Democratic nomination is likely to be a fight between Attorney General (or former governor) Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Poizner has aggressively attacked Whitman over her voting record. His advisers, not surprisingly, have tried to stoke media interest in the story.
Whitman has apologized more than once. The latest came in a statement issued by her campaign on Thursday. "Voting is a precious right that all Americans should exercise," she said. "I have repeatedly said that my voting record is inexcusable. I failed to register and vote on numerous occasions throughout my life. That is simply wrong and I have taken responsibility for my mistake."
Those words may be heartfelt, but they also have the sound of a committee-packaged response designed to deflect, but not deal directly with her political history. Did she think she was simply too busy to vote most of the time? Did she find politics repellent? Did she truly not vote in many of the presidential elections dating back three decades? Does she believe that one vote does not make a difference?
She has offered regrets, but so far nothing that would provide voters with a better understanding of why she acted as she did and how she since has decided to make the transition to public service in one of the most high-profile and challenging political jobs in the country. Is politics a newfound interest or a lifelong avocation that simply did not include voting?
It's clear that her campaign has decided to stick to a barebones apology. When asked in a telephone interview why she had such a poor record, spokesman Tucker Bounds replied, but not on point.
"Meg Whitman is an outsider candidate who is not making excuses," he said. "It was a mistake that she didn't vote and she readily admits it. Our belief is that California voters will come to understand that she is uniquely equipped and qualified to answer to the taxpayers' bottom line in a way that career politicians in Sacramento have failed to do."
Adopting the stance of an outsider is a long-practiced strategy, particularly for those making the shift from the corporate world to politics. Attacking career politicians is also a familiar game. But the voters of California may continue to have questions about whether someone who has declined to participate in the voting process has the interest, skills and patience to navigate through the political process in Sacramento.