Carly Fiorina

Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Carly Fiorina has been the CEO of technology giant Hewlett-Packard, studied six languages, traveled the world to assist rural women in economic development, produced a best-selling book and battled breast cancer.

Now she is engaged in what may be her biggest challenge yet – a combative California Republican primary race for U.S. Senate.

Not bad for someone who describes herself as a “scared, shy, goody-two-shoes child” whose family moved so often she went to five different high schools, and whose father said she would “never amount to anything” when she dropped out of Stanford Law School.

Fiorina, 55, who became the first woman to head one of Fortune magazine’s 20 most-admired companies, is nothing if not a survivor.

The candidate – who hopes to make it a two-woman Senate race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall – says that after a lifetime in the business world, her work as a top adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign fired up her passion for a political career.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” she said, sitting in a Starbucks in San Francisco recently, because it gave her the opportunity to speak with Americans from all parts of the nation and hear their stories and their challenges.

She said she believes she can bring a unique viewpoint to Washington.

“I really do think we’re at a pivotal moment,” she said. “The jobs we lose in this century won’t come back. They won’t. We have to do something different – starting now.”
Formidable odds

A month before the June 8 primary, Fiorina’s colorful and varied biography has put her – along with GOP gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman – in the spotlight this year as a rare top-tier female candidate in the California GOP.

If she succeeds in winning her party’s nomination, it will be against formidable odds: California Republicans have never nominated a woman for U.S. Senate or governor, haven’t elected a woman to statewide office for decades and have never picked a woman to chair their party.

In her quest, Fiorina has celebrated her roots as a working-class girl from modest means who made good: a former medieval history major and student of ancient Greek and Latin – completely unemployable, she jokes – who paid her way through college as a Kelly Girl office temp to rise to the top of the corporate ladder as CEO of a major technology firm.

In her book, “Tough Choices,” Fiorina doesn’t sugarcoat the tear-inducing challenges that sometimes entailed. At one firm, she took a daily hazing of yelling and screaming because the company ethos “was to beat you up hard – and often – to see what you were made of,” she writes.

But when her boss went on an abusive, 45-minute rant, she drew the line. “That’s enough!” she said. “I am sick and f- tired of being yelled at by you.”

He stopped for good.

Fiorina’s strength is that she offers “a very interesting human interest story here to tell – and she’s not shy about telling it,” said Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution media fellow.

Her frank discussion of her battle with breast cancer has won her admirers because it showed her to be vulnerable, gutsy – and tough, he said.

“She’s not your father’s Republican. She’s not a stodgy, button-down white male,” he said. “Look at the history of men who have run unsuccessfully against Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and more often times than not, they tend to fit that mold.”

Fiorina says her experience in the boardroom and typing pool is one reason she can effectively address issues like job creation, taxes and economic development in California.

“I think it’s very understandable why people are furious at Wall Street. People ought to be furious,” she said. “I have publicly said any CEO who takes a bailout should tender their resignation, because they’ve failed in their most fundamental duty.

“But professional politicians let the situation get totally out of control and threw tax money at it,” she said. Voters “want people who are willing to be held accountable – and I’m willing to be held fully accountable for my track record.”
Challenge grows

Still, as a newcomer to politics – one with an admittedly poor voting record – Fiorina’s Senate challenge has greatly intensified since former Rep. Tom Campbell, a pro-choice Republican, jumped from the gubernatorial contest into the Senate race.

He now leads the race in most polls, while Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine – an ex-military man pitching himself as the true Tea Party conservative – has put up a surprisingly strong challenge from the right.

Both have launched tough attacks, with Campbell’s campaign producing a take-off “Book on Carly,” which aims to skewer Fiorina’s own biography – and to present what it says is the real story behind her rise to corporate heights.

Still, Fiorina has exhibited skills as a gifted communicator and compelling candidate – one who speaks without notes, wades into crowds and appears to enjoy give-and-take with voters and reporters.

On a recent tour with Central Valley farmers, Fiorina said she connected with them because “we all think the American dream is getting too hard for too many people. … It’s precious and perishable and aren’t we fortunate for having lived it?

“But we’re destroying it for too many people.”

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