Drew Joseph, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, July 30, 2010

(07-29) 19:26 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — If Robin Leach ever revives “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” he may want to spotlight the candidates in California’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, who have realized their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has two homes in Atherton, together worth more than $15 million, and a $20 million ranch in Telluride, Colo. Her Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Jerry Brown, has a five-story home in the Oakland hills replete with sauna and wine cellar.

GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina owns two yachts – one for each coast – and Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer has two homes in California and a condo in Washington, D.C.

As Americans blame Wall Street corruption and excess for the recession and unemployment rates refuse to budge, resentment of the rich is growing. The four major California candidates are among the wealthiest ever to compete in a single election, and voters are questioning whether they can address the state and federal budget crises and relate to average people.

Although a Field Poll this month showed the large majority of voters – 81 percent – do not care how rich a candidate is, wealth has emerged as a central issue in this year’s races. With the Republican nominees throwing personal millions into their campaign coffers, the focus of many campaign messages and attacks has turned to how much money a candidate has and how they spend it.

Of the remaining 19 percent of Field Poll respondents, 16 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a wealthy candidate, suggesting that some voters view rich candidates as out-of-touch with everyday Californians.

Pushing the point

It is something that Brown and Boxer, whose political careers overshadow their wealth, have been harping on. Boxer has lambasted highly paid former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Fiorina for sending jobs abroad. And opponents of former eBay CEO Whitman have criticized her for the money she made in connection with Goldman Sachs through a practice since outlawed and contend that she is trying to buy the election.

The Democratic candidates have not escaped scrutiny of their wealth, either. Boxer has a blind trust worth between $1 million and $5 million. And Brown’s Oakland home created a stir not because of its $1.8 million value but because the residence conflicted with his promises of penny-pinching.

“People may perceive Jerry Brown to be affluent but pretending to be on the side of the working people,” said Jeff Manza, who received his doctorate from UC Berkeley and heads the sociology department at New York University.

While Boxer and especially Brown are less wealthy than their opponents, when they claim to represent the interests of everyday people, it can make them seem inauthentic, Manza said. Billionaire Whitman and Fiorina, who received over $40 million when fired from HP, may appear more genuine because they appeal to different voters.

There is still some trepidation that comes with being a rich candidate. When 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain could not recall how many houses he owned, it showed an “egregious disconnect” with voters, said Robert Greenwald, the head of Brave New Films, which made anti-McCain films in 2008. In California’s governor race, both candidates have refused to release their tax filings.

Silver spoons

Robert Gugerty, a construction worker from Campbell who participated in the Field Poll, said he was fed up with all four candidates and their wealth. He said that they had been “born with silver spoons in their mouths” and that they could not represent people of the working class like him.

But other people see Fiorina and Whitman’s wealth as indicative of their promise as lawmakers. The candidates are rich because they succeeded in the business world, and they say they will bring that experience to a political world in need of economic acumen.

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