She’s tall, blonde and looks you straight in the eye on meeting. You tell her about a local shipping port issue. She asks for more details and clearly understands the economic significance of the issue in the greater scheme of things.
A few minutes later she’s at the podium telling her personal story in an engaging way, then shifting to the very large problems facing the state. In clear, crisp fashion she tells her audience what she wants to do about them.
She is Meg Whitman and she is running for Governor of California. Like Ronald Reagan more than four decades earlier, she is traveling the state introducing herself to potential supporters in cities and towns large and small.
Her audiences know the problems: a state budget that has shot up by 80 percent over the last 10 years; painful spending cuts and added taxes this year to get the budget temporarily balanced; a school system with results near the bottom of the 50 states; an overly large bureaucracy; an ineffectual legislature — for starters.
She says, “It’s better to do three things at 100 percent than 15 things at 20 percent,” and names the three: job growth, government spending, and education.
If you read that in a campaign brochure your reaction might be ho-hum, but hearing it from this woman who knows her issues and statistics gives the statement the ingredients needed: conviction and determination.
It’s widely understood that California’s regulatory burdens and high taxes are keeping new businesses out and driving away some existing ones. When she says she will set out to streamline the regulatory process “in a very aggressive way,” you believe her.
California’s government has been growing like mushrooms after the rain. She is determined to stop and, wherever possible, reduce that growth. She intends to review all programs with an eye toward consolidation where that’s appropriate, and elimination if they have outlived their usefulness.
As for education, of the state’s $70 billion annual spending, approximately half goes to administrative and overhead costs. Her goal is to bring that down to 20 percent, with 80 percent going into the classroom, including merit pay for exceptional teachers.
There are entrenched constituencies for the status quo in all of three areas of her focus. The legislature has been controlled by the Democrats for most of the last 50 years. They still live in the reflected glow of the steady growth of the Fifties and Sixties (before many of them were born). Then, the answer to any problem was, do it; we’ll find the money (in taxes, tolls, licensing fees) and the state seemingly could always afford it. Population was always growing; so were revenues.
No more. The public is used to having a can-do spirit, but unwilling to pay for it. A steady dose of reality, coupled with optimism, is what is needed. And that is exactly what Meg Whitman communicates. Like Ronald Reagan, her demeanor is friendly and upbeat, but determined.
She understands the complicated interrelationships of institutions. She got her start in management consulting, with Bain & Company, Mitt Romney’s company. Later, she moved to eBay, then a small online auction company with 30 employees. She piloted it to $8 billion in annual sales and 15,000 employees. It is very pro-entrepreneur. “Today, 1.3 million people make most or all of their living on eBay,” she says.
As one person said after her presentation, “The politicians — mostly men — have messed things up in Sacramento for years. Maybe it’s time to let a smart, successful businesswoman have a crack at it.” Indeed it may be.
Like Ronald Reagan, she has clear convictions, the determination to carry them out against a large, usually unmovable object — state government, and the optimistic, sunny personality needed to roll with the punches. Is she the next Reagan? Maybe so.