Meg Whitman On Campaign Spending, Ads

It's All Politics

NPR's Michele Norris talks to Meg Whitman, Republican nominee for governor of California, who currently trails her opponent, former Gov. Jerry Brown. Whitman has poured more than $140 million of her own money into her campaign. She says if she's elected, that money will be the best investment she could have ever made in changing California.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Midterm elections are just a week away. Across the country we're watching a number of close contests, including the race for governor in California. Most polls show Republican Meg Whitman trailing the Democratic nominee, former governor Jerry Brown.

Still, this week, Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, told her supporters, we're going to win this. I spoke with Meg Whitman earlier today and asked her about her latest ad. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of ad)

Ms. MEG WHITMAN (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, California): I know many of you see this election as an unhappy choice between a longtime politician with no plan for the future and a billionaire with no government experience.

NORRIS: I wanted to ask you about that line in particular because it seems like an admission that you are a less than ideal candidate. It's not exactly a statement of self-confidence when you talk about an unhappy choice.

Ms. WHITMAN: Well, I think it's a reality for the swing voters in California. And, of course, this election will be decided by those who have not yet made up their mind. And as I talk to those voters every day out on the campaign trail, they say, gosh, you know what, this is a tough choice for us. The career politician who's been doing this for 40 years, who has no new ideas, versus me, who has, you know, made a lot of money in the private sector, hasn't had government experience and they're torn.

And so I decided to call a spade a spade and make the case about why they should vote for me. And we've gotten very good feedback on this ad because it's honest.

NORRIS: Speaking of straight talk, now, you yourself did not register to vote until seven years ago. You said that you were focused on your family for many years. How do you convince Californians who might be focused on their families that it's okay to vote for someone who didn't engage in the political process until recently?

Ms. WHITMAN: Well, first of all, I actually did register to vote. That's been mischaracterized in the media. I first registered to vote in 1979, when we came out to California and also in Cincinnati, Ohio. But the truth is my voting record is not perfect by any means. And I'm not proud of it.

NORRIS: How often, just to clear that up - how many elections did you actually get to vote?

Ms. WHITMAN: You know, that's hard to - I can't remember exactly. But I did not vote as often as I should have. I'm not proud of that and I take full accountability for it and I apologize to the voters of California.

NORRIS: But shouldn't political engagement perhaps be a baseline requirement? Is that an acceptable explanation? I mean, would you, in your position at eBay hire someone who, for instance, had said that they never bothered to use a computer because they were too busy?

Ms. WHITMAN: Well, I don't know that that's a perfect analogy. But people are going to have to make their decision, Michele. You know, they'll make their own decision about whether that is something that in their mind, you know, says, gee, I can't vote for her, or if they'll say you know what, guess what, you know, people make mistakes. She has acknowledged her mistakes, she has taken accountability for that mistake. She has apologized for it.

And then, you know, then they'll go from there and say, okay, we, you know, on Election Day, we have to make a choice between, you know, a career politician who really has no new ideas to solve the state's problems. Or do we want someone who brings a whole fresh new approach, who brings common sense, real world experience from the private sector and the technology sector and, you know, has a real plan, a very specific plan to fix California.

NORRIS: You've spent a lot of money on this campaign - $140 million of your own money. In the middle of a deep recession, are you afraid that spending that kind of money might make you seem to be a bit out of touch with Americans who have to watch every single dime they spend?

Ms. WHITMAN: Well, I have lived the California dream in ways I never could've imagined. You know, my husband and I came out to California in the early '80s. He wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to have a career in business. We wanted to raise our family here. And California's been very good to me. So this is all money I earned.

And I'm making an investment in the future of California. And I'm putting my money where my mouth is. I believe that I can turn this state around with help from lots of other people. And if I am successful in turning this state around, we get California back to being the very best place to start and grow a business. We create two million new private sector jobs by 2015. We fix our K-12 public education system. Then this will be the best investment that I could've ever made in, you know, changing California.

NORRIS: You've had some slippage in the polls. Many are attributing this recent decline to the allegations raised by your former housekeeper that you knew of her illegal status for some time before you fired her. Now, you're a businesswoman who has a lot of experience and managers are always looking back and assessing their own performance.

What is your personal critique on the way that you handled those allegations and the fallout resulting from those allegations? And what did you learn from it?

Ms. WHITMAN: Well, you know, I tell you what, I think this was a political stunt, Michele, I really do.

NORRIS: The stunt aside, you know, set that aside. I'm curious about your assessment of how you handled this allegation, how you explained it and the question about whether or not you actually did know of her status.

Ms. WHITMAN: Okay, so the absolute truth is we had no idea that Nikki was here illegally. We were very saddened. She was a great employee. But, you know, it's illegal to hire illegal immigrants in California, so we had to let her go. You know, that's the story of what happened here. And it's a tragedy because I believe this really is a political stunt. And these kind of issues in politics - its what turns people off to politics. It just makes them, you know, not happy with it.

NORRIS: Meg Whitman, thank you very much.

Ms. WHITMAN: Okay. Thank you.

NORRIS: Meg Whitman is the Republican candidate for governor in California and the former CEO of eBay. We've also invited her opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown to appear on NPR.

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