Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has built her campaign for governor on the premise that her experience as a business executive — even one with no government background — is needed to lead California out of recession.
"I think it's going to take someone with a business background to restore, fundamentally, the economic health of this state," she said at a recent campaign stop in Folsom.
Whitman points to her record of effective leadership as she took eBay from a startup to an international phenomenon, creating jobs and shareholder wealth. It is that style she says will help her address systemic governance problems in Sacramento.
The Capitol, however, presents some serious impediments to command and control by a chief executive, from a rare two-thirds requirement for budget votes to an initiative process that lets voters decide spending and policy issues.
Former Gov. Gray Davis told the Legislature without success to "implement my vision." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has lamented that courts and lawmakers have blocked budget-cutting efforts he's made.
High-profile business leaders throughout the country have met with mixed success when they've run for public office.
Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs executive, senator and one-term governor of New Jersey, told Newsweek this year that he, like Whitman, thought "the managerial skill set would be helpful."
It wasn't, he said.
"The idea that you're accountable to a bottom line and to a payroll in managing a business – it gives voters the confidence that you have the right skills (to govern)," Corzine told Newsweek. "But it's 20,000 people vs. 9 million. I don't think candidates get the scale and scope of what governing is. You don't have the flexibility you imagined. There's no exact translation."
As governor, Whitman would have to work with a Legislature controlled by the opposite party and the labor unions that represent the state work force. She didn't have to contend with unions at eBay, and has offered a variety of answers to say how she'd persuade lawmakers to act.
When asked in Folsom how she would address the state budget impasse, one of the most persistent problems in Sacramento, Whitman said, "I would have chained them (legislative leaders) to the desk to get this done."
"This is about leadership," she said.
Whitman proposed in March that she would create legislative teams to address her top priorities. Lawmakers dismissed the idea, noting the Legislature already is organized by committee.
Whitman has said what she doesn't know about government she could learn from Cabinet members and other appointees. She is a practiced hirer of executives.
"I want to find some people who've worked in government in Florida, in Texas, in New Jersey," Whitman said. "I'd love to get a few Chris Christie people out here."
Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has sought to crack down on labor union clout and institute controversial budget-cutting measures. Whitman said, "He's doing very well back there."
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