News & Views from 465 California Street

How to Beat a Billionaire

Clint Reilly

Now that California Attorney General Jerry Brown has made his candidacy for governor official, does he have what it takes to beat back his likely Republican foe, billionaire Meg Whitman?

Sixteen years ago, I managed the gubernatorial campaign of Brown’s sister, then-State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who was soundly defeated by incumbent Governor Pete Wilson.

Jerry was a quiet bystander during that campaign, contributing only $150 to his sister’s cash-starved campaign as a protest against the power of money in politics.

Now Jerry must raise tens of millions to beat Whitman, an adversary with unlimited personal wealth who is anxious to paint him as an over-the-hill 1970s retread.

He should also take note of critical lessons from his sister’s failed quest in 1994. Like “Jerry 2010,” “Kathleen 1994” faced several major obstacles.

First, it was an overwhelmingly Republican year. Bill Clinton’s first midterm election turned out to be one of the most disastrous political cycles in history for Democrats.

Second, polls clearly showed that voters still had not purged their negative feelings about Jerry’s two terms as governor.
They saw Kathleen’s opposition to the death penalty as a sign that she was a weak-on-crime liberal in the tradition of Jerry’s state supreme court appointee Rose Bird, who was drummed out of office in a harsh law-and-order referendum by an angry electorate.

Third, Wilson diverted attention away from his responsibility for California’s grinding recession by scapegoating illegal immigrants.
California voters blamed Democrats exclusively for the recession, even though Wilson and his predecessor, George Deukmejian, had managed the state for the previous 12 years.

Fourth, Wilson dramatically outspent Kathleen by adroitly manipulating the power of incumbency to compile what was a massive war chest for that era.

Even though 16 years have elapsed, Jerry Brown confronts many similar problems. 2010 promises to be a bruising year for Democrats. Barack Obama and the Democratic leaders in Washington are in the same precarious position that Bill Clinton and his party faced in the 1994 midterms.

Voters blame a dysfunctional government and a bad economy on the party in power. Jerry must decouple his campaign from Obama and the Democratic Congress.

Jerry’s life has been a modern odyssey. He has transformed himself over a 40-year career and played myriad roles.

For most voters, memories of Governor Moonbeam, Linda Ronstadt and Rose Bird have been replaced by images of a common sense mayor of Oakland, his attorney wife Anne Gust and today’s law-and-order attorney general. Brown can’t allow himself to be defined by Whitman’s media strategist Mike Murphy, who will run against the “Young Jerry.”

Today’s attorney general is a pretty damn good ballot designation for governor – good enough to elect both his father Pat Brown and Deukmejian.

Nor can Brown allow Whitman to manufacture false issues that change the subject on her flaws. In an era where business leaders squandered trillions and taxpayers bailed them out, Whitman shouldn’t be allowed to wear her billion-dollar net worth as a sign of accomplishment, virtue and extraordinary competence.

Jerry must eviscerate the “run government like a business” mantra of executives who nearly toppled capitalism with their profligacy and amorality.

Finally, Brown will certainly be outspent. Whitman has already burned $38 million and the campaign hasn’t yet begun. She is on course to become the biggest spender in history.

Jerry must tie Whitman to the generation of CEOs and corporate chieftains who nearly bankrupted America. He must attack the phony stock options and over the top pay packages that made executives like Whitman insanely rich without them investing a dime of their own money or taking one iota of risk.

Pete Wilson used his fundraising advantage as governor to make the 1994 campaign a referendum on Kathleen Brown. Today, Jerry Brown must turn the tables and make the governor’s race a referendum on wealthy executives who use their ill-gotten gains to buy power and pervert public policy.

Comments (9)

  • Clint
    I applaud your zeal but some of your statements are ubsurd to any logical mind.

    You rail aginst Whitman as an example of business gone wrong and a champion of corporate greed. Why, what has she ever been convicted of besides marshalling a loose band of entrepreneurs into one of the biggest tech company in the world employing thousands and spauning new businesses everywhere?

    Using your same logic why is Brown not an example of government run amock? Why is he not not an example of power and personal excess ala Charlie Rangle or maybe a man driven to subversive tactics ala Richard Nixon.

    Why are liberal criticisms like these only leveled one way. Is it a case of being “open and tolerant” as long as one agrees with the liberal position?

    Can you hear yorself?

    Of course neither of these people is the cliche I outline. Frankly I like both of them and will wait until I hear their positions then vote accordingly.

    I suggest you do the same.

    Posted by: JC Laffey | March 9th, 2010 at 11:26 pm

  • Your quote: “the generation of CEO’s and corporate chieftains who nearly
    bankrupted America”. – Fact: It was feel good liberals and community
    activist groups, (like ACORN), who forced banks, against their better
    judgment, to make sub-prime loans.

    Your last sentence: “ill-gotten gains to buy power and pervert public
    policy”. – Are you sure you’re not talking about George Soros? He has as
    much, if not more power / influence than most governors.

    Some people just don’t want to be confused by facts that contradict
    their preconceived opinions.

    Keith C

    Posted by: Keith C. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

  • We are truly delusional: we characterized the abject failure of Reagan’s
    voodoo economics as success. Bush II rammed a replica of the failed Reagan
    economic fantasy down America’s financial throat twice (via Senatorial
    reconciliation both times and once, after reconciliation, on a 50-50 vote
    requiring for passage then Vice President Cheney’s tie breaking vote).
    Einstein’s epigram that insanity is repeating an activity that has always
    led to failure in the expectation that the next time it’s repeated it will
    succeed fits Boehner, McConnell, Cantor, DeMint, et al, to a “T”.

    Posted by: Howard | March 12th, 2010 at 12:12 pm

  • It seems your legacy of running loosing campaigns uniquely qualifies your
    advice to current candidates.

    If Democrats can succeed to shift the blame for the states bankruptcy onto
    “greedy” corporate CEOs, then they and the sheep that elect them deserve
    each other and the sorry fate of this beautiful state.

    Posted by: Erich K. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

  • I really enjoy reading your on the mark commentaries


    I only wish that more of my friends and collegues
    would rear your articles( also Spottswoods)
    David C

    Posted by: David C. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

  • I love your column and I thought today you hit it head-on! I’m afraid I’m one who
    believes that certain executives entering politics are, in fact, using “…their
    ill-gotten gains to buy power and pervert public policy.” Keep up the good work!

    Katie D

    Posted by: Katie D. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

  • REALLY enjoy it. Thank-you!
    Glen G

    Posted by: Glen G. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

  • A great analysis. Brown must run as the outsider and populist, taking on the establishment and eMeg’s strategy of viewing California as another jewel in her crown.Murphy’s strategy is last century’s news. Best.

    Posted by: Joe S. | March 12th, 2010 at 12:18 pm

  • Read you all the time, a loud, clear. progressive voice for California and

    Posted by: Tex & Terry | March 12th, 2010 at 12:18 pm

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