Meg Whitman

Ken McLaughlin

kmclaughlin@mercurynews.com
Posted: 07/30/2010 03:39:58 PM PDT
Updated: 07/31/2010 06:09:13 AM PDT

NEW YORK — Californians may see Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor as an unprecedented phenomenon sweeping across the Golden State — a billionaire political newcomer spending tens of millions of dollars on a campaign, promising to reshape government the same way she conquered the world of business.

But the former CEO of eBay is closely following the lead of another tech-driven billionaire CEO-turned-politician: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In fact, once Whitman began mulling her run for governor, she said, Bloomberg gave her some advice for the campaign trail. “He said, ‘Meg, be yourself. Tell it like you see it and don’t be afraid of the expertise that you have built in business. It is applicable in many ways to governing.’ ”

Now, the Bloomberg experience in New York is providing voters clues on how Whitman, a Republican, might govern in Democrat-dominated California.

The parallels between Bloomberg and Whitman, both moderates, are striking.

Like Whitman, Bloomberg made promises during his first campaign that he would create jobs, fix education and hold the line on taxes. Both trumpeted 21st-century data-based technologies to streamline bureaucracies and make government more efficient and accountable. Both vowed to make appointments based on professional expertise rather than political payoffs.

Even their critics sound alike.

While Whitman’s opponents deride her as “Queen Meg,” Bloomberg’s enemies call him “King Mike.”

Democratic operatives often remind voters that Whitman is a Long Island, N.Y., native. During his first campaign, Bloomberg, who grew up in a Boston suburb, was accused of being a, gulp, Red Sox fan.

And, of course, Whitman’s effort to be like Bloomberg means that she’s willing to spend gobs of money to win at the polls.

Whitman’s roughly $1.3 billion makes her a pauper compared with Bloomberg’s estimated $18 billion net worth. Still, Whitman has
San Jose Mercury News graphic
already pulled $91 million out of her own pocket in her quest to be governor and is expected to soon break Bloomberg’s self-funding record of $109 million for a single campaign.

“One of the things Whitman learned from Bloomberg is that you spend whatever it takes to hire the best political consultants you can by making them offers they can’t refuse,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public policy at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. “You then spend freely on sophisticated focus groups, polls and databases. Then you just keep spending and spending until you’ve got the election” clinched.

Another similar tactic: Selling voters on the notion that “I’m so rich that no one can buy me.” Like Bloomberg, Whitman started advertising extremely early, building to a crescendo as the primary election approached.

Whitman also adopted Bloomberg’s tactic of “microtargeting” voters. Eight years before Whitman’s campaign began, Team Bloomberg perfected the art of using phone surveys and overlapping marketing and political databases to fill mailboxes with messages tailored to a voter’s ethnicity, income level and political leanings.

“They knew you were making $50,000 a year, had a 401(k), drove a Prius and shopped at Bed Bath & Beyond,” Muzzio said.

Bloomberg, who made his fortune providing “Bloomberg terminals” to finance professionals around the world, was not expected to win when the lifelong Democrat entered politics as a Republican in 2001. But the Sept. 11 attacks changed everything.

“Mike’s opponents had attacked him by saying: ‘How could you deal with all the competing groups without any experience in the world of New York politics?’ ” said Bill Cunningham, one of Bloomberg’s chief strategists in the 2001 race. “But after the shock and horror of 9/11, the main issue became who could manage a multibillion city budget and reclaim the 100,000 jobs we lost” when many financial firms fled to New Jersey and elsewhere.

Bloomberg won the election over his Democratic challenger by 2 points. Then the hard part began.

By his second year in office, Bloomberg made the unpopular choice to raise property taxes 18 percent — something Whitman pledges not to do — in addition to imposing temporary income and sales tax surcharges, rather than cut deeply into services. He said he didn’t want the city to return to the dark days of crime and grime.

Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said Bloomberg has never been tough on public employee unions, choosing instead to “buy labor peace.” The mayor allowed city workers’ salaries “to climb well above the rate of inflation,” boosting annual pension obligations, Siegel said.

But Bloomberg’s gamble paid off. By 2005, when he sought a second term, crime continued to drop dramatically and the jobs came back as the local and national economy recovered. He beat the Democrat by 20 percentage points.

The often-brash Bloomberg took an aggressive, sometimes combative, approach to governing. A hands-on manager, he took over control of the schools and made it much easier for city residents to “connect” with city government by setting up a 311 phone system that allows residents and even tourists to do everything from complain about graffiti to find out about summer concerts in Central Park. Often dubbed “the nanny mayor,” he banned smoking in bars and trans fats in restaurants.

His popularity plummeted in 2009, however, when he got the City Council to change New York’s term-limit law to allow him to run a third time. He won by 5 percentage points last year after outspending his opponent by an 11-1 ratio.

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