Meg Whitman's Political Reinvention

The former eBay chief was named chief of HP. We chatted with her in 2010 (when she was campaigning for governor of California) and found out who "the real Meg Whitman" is.

By Amy Wallace
meg whitman image
Meg Whitman, poised to reinvent
Photograph: Photo By Robert Maxwell

She proceeds to once again outline the three pillars of her platform: creating new jobs, cutting spending and strengthening education. Whitman acknowledges that there’s nothing unique about these priorities, that fixing this stuff is Job One for any governor in the country, but she insists that the lack of novelty is a strength. “Eighty percent of the people can agree on this agenda,” she tells me. “It is not a divisive agenda. It is an uplifting agenda. Most people have some intuitive sense that the government is not run as efficiently as it should be. I mean, when you go to the DMV, do you feel uplifted? Probably not. When you go to file your state taxes, do you feel like this is an easy process? You’re probably feeling that California is not run as efficiently as it could be.”

Behind a velvet curtain just a few feet from where Whitman stands, campaign staffers are working hard to ensure she gets a chance to fix that. There, in a makeshift studio decorated only by a spray of delphinium, they are busily videotaping testimonials from several smart-looking women plucked from the crowd who say they will vote for Whitman. Within hours, that footage will be up on megwhitman.com, her official Web site, which was created by former eBay executives and is far more elaborate than the sites of her male rivals. Its distinctly feminine design is aimed directly at women, the voters Whitman says have had a major role in deciding every California election in the past 20 years. On the site, a woman named Lydia Beebe, the corporate secretary for Chevron Corp., explains why she joined Whitman’s MEGaWomen grassroots organization. “Meg has brought appeal beyond the Republican party,” Beebe says, predicting that Whitman’s pragmatism will win over voters “who might not otherwise be attracted to somebody with an R after their name.”

One of Whitman’s more controversial proposals is to suspend for a year the state’s compliance with Assembly Bill 32, which requires California to reduce greenhouse emissions by roughly 25 percent by 2020. She insists that she is an environmentalist but that now is not the time to embark on any programs that might drive business away. The extent to which the regulations might repel jobs has been the subject of past debate, but Whitman, with her instinct for data, says she’d keep relentless track. “We ought to have a digital billboard outside the governor’s office where we say how many jobs left for neighboring states this week, this month,” she says. “And until that number turns black, as opposed to bleeding jobs, then our job is not done. What I know from life is that when everyone’s focused on one number, somehow that number gets fixed.”

Her plan for eliminating 40,000 state positions has also drawn fire, even from the office of fellow-Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which pointed out that many state jobs don’t fall under the governor’s control. (Some have said that to achieve those cuts Whitman would have to fire so many corrections officers that it would be a threat to public safety.) But Whitman stands firm on her overall message. “Being CEO of the state is not a popularity contest,” she once said. “In the real world, business leaders cut expenses until the company is healthy again.”

Whitman’s biggest political black eye so far has been her frequent failure to vote. She didn’t cast a ballot for president in 2000, for instance, or in the election that recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Schwarzenegger. “It was a mistake,” she says whenever she is asked about it. “I should have voted, and I didn’t.” Lately she has offered more of an excuse, telling Fortune: “I was head down, building eBay, with two teenage sons and a neurosurgeon husband and traveling half the time.”

First Published January 20, 2010

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