Whitman’s plan for California is straight from the Reagan playbook: cutting taxes to stimulate the economy and bringing private-sector discipline to the education system. So far, she has said she’ll eliminate 40,000 jobs from the government payroll and form legislative panels to address the intractable state budget—ideas viewed as hopelessly naïve in Sacramento, where the governor has little authority over the Legislature and political veterans wait with mild bemusement to hear which 40,000 jobs Whitman plans to get rid of.
Her political identity, built on having taken eBay from a start-up to a nearly $8 billion company using advanced branding techniques, is itself a marvel of corporate branding. Her campaign slogan, “Meg 2010: A New California,” appears on posters against a misty, pearly image of Yosemite National Park. Her official logo, embedded on her magazines and on TV ads, is a rectangular stamp with a silhouette of a mountain range at dawn—a brazen recycling of the logo of L.L. Bean, the Maine-based outfitter, telegraphing environmental friendliness in a catalogue-smooth gloss. It’s cheerful, certainly, but it’s not a great Californian burst of optimism, like Reagan’s Morning Again in America, and it seems a little wan beside the chiaroscuro that is California in its current state of decay. And what’s behind all of Whitman’s gloss is something veteran California political hands are trying to figure out nowadays. “I don’t know anyone who really knows her,” says Steve Merksamer, a Republican lawyer in Sacramento who served in the administrations of two former state governors.
Whitman’s interest in politics was a late-life occurrence. Mitt Romney, her boss at Bain & Co. in the early eighties, and now a key mentor, encouraged her after the presidential campaign in 2008, when she served as an economic adviser to Senator John McCain, alongside the other queen of California tech, former Hewlett Packard CEO and Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. The two women gained buzz in the party in 2008, exemplifying the new Republican strain: tough, female, no-nonsense. Both came with cutthroat reputations, especially Whitman, whom some former associates describe as tyrannical, pointing to her infamous $200,000 settlement with an eBay employee after an incident in which Whitman was alleged to have shoved her. Early focus groups for Whitman’s campaign found her cold and remote. “No matter how many smart people are in a room, she thinks not only is she the smartest, but she is smarter than all of them put together,” says a former colleague.
Whitman and Fiorina have fought to see who can transform the tech-queen story line into political gold. Early on, during a McCain-campaign meeting, Whitman asked Fiorina to take notes during a presentation Whitman was giving—never a great way to make friends. Their mutual dislike is an open secret. When a local reporter asked Whitman why she wasn’t sticking around for Fiorina’s speech at the state’s GOP convention the next day, Whitman said, “I’ve got some things I’ve got to do tomorrow. Tomorrow is really Carly’s day. She’s headlining the lunch, and I’m thrilled for her.”
In late August, after a summer in which Whitman campaigned nonstop and spent millions and Brown held few rallies and spent almost no money, Whitman had only managed a tie, and the press was wondering whether she’d stalled out. Asked during the press conference how she felt about a tie, less $100 million, Whitman said, “I’m thrilled to death.”
The Dream is California’s original natural resource, what everything else is built on, and California’s political class was wondering what would happen to the state if it somehow disappeared.
“Did I tell you the story about Queen Califia?”
I’m talking to Bob Hertzberg, a prominent Democrat and lawyer whose 25th-floor office overlooks the golden-brown haze of Los Angeles. A former state assemblyman, Hertzberg tutored Arnold Schwarzenegger in California politics and history when the governor took office in 2003. From his overstuffed bookshelves, he pulls out a dusty volume and settles into his leather chair.
“In 1540, one of the great Spanish books of the time was a book called The Exploits of Esplandian,” he intones, flipping through the pages. “The book centers around Queen Califia, a black Amazon woman draped in gold, of an island called California, which was ruled by these black women, naked women, dressed in gold.
“So when the Spanish sailors came and saw the coast in 1540, this was what was in their mind’s eye. California. Hence the name. That’s how we got the name. Queen Califia’s island.
“And when you think about it, it has always been the land that has been the inspiration. At every level. The land rushes, the gold rush. All this stuff about the natural resources. That’s what the beauty of this thing is.