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

If there’s one feeling that multitasking women can understand, it’s that one. Which is why, despite the best efforts of some of her rivals, her spotty voting record may prove to be a nonstarter. Also going for her are some big-name endorsements: from Mitt Romney, for whose presidential run she raised $12 million; John McCain (she served as his national co-chair after Romney dropped out of the race); former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and former two-term California governor Pete Wilson, who is the chair of her campaign.

And then there’s her money—all billion-plus dollars of it—which she has been spending freely: The Los Angeles Times reported that from January to June 2009, the Whitman campaign spent $111,706 just on chartering planes, almost as much as the $147,030 that her Republican rival Tom Campbell spent on his entire campaign. And this may be just the beginning. “[She has said] she’s willing to spend $150 million of her own money on this campaign. That’s the budget of some countries,” says Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “And to the extent she follows through with it, that will color the race a lot.”

Whitman is unapologetic. “[As of July 2009], the campaign has raised more than $6.7 million,” she says. “I’ve matched the enthusiasm of my donors by contributing $19 million since February. I’m prepared to invest whatever it takes to communicate my message to Californians and to have an opportunity to address the problems of the state.” Based on those numbers, she has done far more than “match” her donors’ contributions, but money alone may not be enough to secure victory. In New York in November 2009, Mike Bloomberg won a third term as mayor by a margin of less than five percentage points, despite running the most expensive self-financed campaign in U.S. history. (He spent over $100 million, more than 10 times his main rival’s outlay.) In California in 2006, venture capitalist Steve Westly poured $35 million of his own money into his campaign for governor, only to lose the Democratic primary.

So if money alone won’t make the difference, what will? The burden is heavy on Whitman to show that her experience at eBay qualifies her for public office. “For voters to buy her argument, they’re going to have to believe that her record in the private sector was exemplary,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, at the University of Southern California. Or, as Gerston puts it, “She has a prominent set of business skills, but the question is, are they transferable to a government setting?

One major problem for Whitman in making her case is that in a certain sense, she never had to reinvent eBay: She grew it, but she didn’t turn it around. And turnaround is what California desperately needs. At presstime, the state had a $20 billion deficit, a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, and a K–12 school system ranking 48 out of 50 in reading. Politically speaking, California is just as ripe for reinvention as Whitman herself is. Will the self-contained but highly competitive personality that proved such an asset at eBay translate politically? Will those same traits make her an effective governor if she does get elected? If enough voters take away the message that she is her mother’s daughter—the pioneer in a man’s world, going where need is greatest—perhaps we’ll all have the chance to find out.  
Read: Meg Whitman Is Named Hewlett-Packard Chief

Related: 50 Women You Want On Your Side

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First Published January 20, 2010

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