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Battle for California: The Entrepreneur vs. The Preacher

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POSTED June 9, 2010 3:00 a.m.
We don’t have normal elections in California. We have spectacles.

There was the recall. It was a political free-for-all with 135 candidates ranging from the late Gary Coleman to a porn star that eventually propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger into his biggest role ever – running a “B” grade disaster epic known as state government California-style.

Now we have an e-Bay billionaire versus a one-time Catholic seminary student that turned politician that studied Buddhism, dated rock star Linda Ronstadt and, volunteered side-by-side with Mother Teresa squaring off for governor.

It’s uptown Meg Whitman and her Beverly Hills Hotel campaign against Jerry Brown’s Motel 6 approach.

Brown, when he was first elected governor in 1974, was the state’s youngest ever at age 37. If he’s elected in November he’ll become the nation’s oldest governor at age 72.

Woody Allen couldn’t have written a more bizarre outline for an election.

What makes this all the more odd is that Whitman is promising to do exactly what Brown did when he got elected as governor in 1974 which is turn Sacramento upside down.

After running what was a boring campaign against Republican nominee Houston Flourny, Brown morphed into one of the most unpredictable Democrats ever to occupy the governor’s office.

He twice fought against pay raises for the University of California professors arguing their lofty egotistical rewards were pay enough. It was remarks like that plus shunning the new governor’s mansion that was described as a Safeway plopped down in suburbia in favor of sleeping on a mattress in a minimal apartment near the State Capital and opting for a beat-up state motor pool Plymouth he often drove himself instead of a gleaming limo as his official state vehicle that earned him the moniker as “Governor Moonbeam.”

He also tried to rein in government although it wasn’t exactly a success story. He spoke about the “era of limitations” and “small is beautiful” arguing that government was getting too obtrusive and expansive. In the end, though, his often unorthodox pronouncements coupled with his efforts to get Democrats – and Republicans – to embrace his philosophy was less than productive.

He appointed Rose Bird – a lawyer with no judicial experience – to head the California Supreme Court. He appointed Adrianna Gianturcco – a transit guru who was raised in Boston – as the director of state transportation. She proceeded to stop road projects for a good four to six years arguing everyone in California should have access to public transit. Try catching a bus in Delano like you can in San Francisco.

In the end, estimates varied that her roadblocks caused the state to lose $5 billion to $7 billion in purchasing power for road construction money that she refused to distribute for years.

While it is tempting to argue that Brown may have been ahead of his time, Whitman wasn’t about to let that storyline gain any traction on election night.

She noted in her victory speech that “during Jerry’s last term as governor, California’s unemployment rate nearly doubled to a then record high of 11 percent.

“For spending – while Jerry was Governor, state spending increased by 120 percent, he raised taxes, and still left a billion dollar deficit.

“I say California can do better. Because while Jerry Brown’s business is politics, my business is creating good new jobs.”

Good luck on that one. As Brown can tell you the governor isn’t a chief executive officer and the 120 members of the California Legislature aren’t subservient corporate board members.

And the stakeholders – California residents and special interest groups they support – aren’t like stockholders that you can simply ignore.

Brown tried running California as a state where the clarion call was to do what was best for the public’s good without pursuing the “bigger is better” philosophy.

Whitman wants to run it like a business.

Rest assured she can’t mess it up any more than it already is.

This brings us to the November election that will pit The Entrepreneur against The Preacher.

If you think Whitman is an Old School Republican or Brown is a traditional Democrat then you probably also believe that no one enters the United States illegally from Mexico.

It is doubtful that Whitman’s spine will be as soft as Arnold’s has been in dealing with the state employee unions. And given the amount of love state employees have for Arnold you know this is going to be one wild and crazy race between now and November.

Look for Whitman to come spending out of the gate and for panicked traditional Democratic interest groups – even though they aren’t exactly wild about Jerry – to pour it on as well.

In short, get ready for political Armageddon. Either this race for governor will set the foundation for a new era in California or it will have the same impact on rebuilding a broken system as using a nuclear bomb as a catalyst for urban redevelopment.
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