By Miriam Raftery
August 6, 2009 (El Cajon) – Can the woman who led e-Bay to become one of the world’s most successful business models turn around California’s troubled economy?
Meg Whitman, former Chief Executive Officer of the online auction site, pledged to run California “more like a business” if she wins the Republican primary and general election next year for Governor. Whitman spoke yesterday in a public forum at Cuyamaca College sponsored by the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber president Brian Grey called Whitman an “unparalleled business success story” who “transformed and made E-commerce possible.” Her business credentials are indisputably impeccable. After growing E-Bay from 30 to 15,000 employees and raising revenues from $4 million to $8 billion, she was named most powerful woman in the world by Fortune magazine and was also listed among the most influential women in the U.S. by Time Magazine.
Why would anybody want to be Governor of an insolvent state with a gridlocked Legislature, unemployment at 11 ½ percent, and a K-12 education system that now ranks a dismal 48th out of 50 states?
“I refuse to let California fail,” Whitman said. “Make no mistake. We are in trouble.”
She pledged to focus on three priorities.
Job creation and retention top that list. “Businesses are fleeing our state, not to India or China, but to (other states) where taxes and regulations are less,” she said. She pledged to reduce taxes and regulations on businesses to encourage companies to stay or come here, a move she believes would create jobs and boost revenues.
Whitman also called for further cuts in state spending, despite unprecedented deep cuts already made in programs ranging from healthcare to education. “We do not have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem of epic proportions,” she said. In a press conference after her speech, she said up to $35 billion in spending could be cut from the budget, which she would have vetoed. Whitman also said she believes another 30,000 to 40,000 state worker jobs could be eliminated.
Whitman made clear that she would not support new taxes or a revision of proposition 13. “God gives me the wisdom to know what we can change,” she said. “Our total revenue is enough, and we need to increase that by growing employers and employees.” She pledged to “aggressively use the veto pen” as well as the initiative process to further her gubernatorial agenda.
Education is her third priority. “K-12 education needs serious review,” said Whitman, who claims a “passion for education” and decried the declining ranking of California schools. “Our higher education , the envy of most of the country, is in serious jeopardy. If we let what happened to K-12 schools happen to higher education, there is no turning back.” Whitman has two sons, one a recent college graduate, the other a sophomore in college.
But when asked by East County Magazine about repeated tuition hikes that have priced many California State University and University of California students out of a higher education, Whitman declined to support a roll-back in tuition fees. “We’re going to have to mitigate on a go-forward basis,” she said. Whitman also had scant reassurance for a Cuyamaca College employee who expressed concern over lay-offs of state employees at community colleges. Locally, the college district has had a 17% spike in recent enrollment due to economic pressures forcing students to seek lower cost education alternatives.
Whitman called for improvements to California’s infrastructure system. She believes the water shortage is a “crisis point” that has led to 38%-42% unemployment in central California, where a third of cropland is unplanted due to lack of water. “Soon there won’t be enough water for San Diego,” she warned.
Whitman called for construction of a water conveyance system (formerly proposed as the Peripheral Canal) to bring water from Northern to Southern California. She also called for more above ground storage of water, increased conservation, desalinization, and pumping more water back into the delta.
An audience member asked Whitman’s views on prison reform. She replied that California spends more on prison guards and healthcare for prisoners than many other states. (A judge, however, has just ordered release of many state prisoners on grounds that conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary, leading to a high number of inmate deaths.) Whitman said she supports sending more prisoners to out of state prisons to cut costs, but opposes early release of prisoners.
East County Magazine asked Whitman her approach to the healthcare crisis and rising healthcare costs, the number one cause of bankruptcies in the U.S. and a key problem for businesses that have difficulty affording healthcare insurance for employees.
“It helps jobs if we can get healthcare under control,” said Whitman, noting that as Governor, she would first need to see what healthcare reforms the federal government may enact. “There is no question we need to improve access to care,” she noted, adding that early access to healthcare prevents costly emergency room treatments. She would also look to see “how to squeeze fraud and abuse out of the system.” In addition, she seeks an increase in incentives for “outcome based care,” noting that neither doctors nor patients have incentives not to seek unnecessary tests and procedures under the current healthcare system.
Whitman’s campaign is chaired by former Governor and past San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. Whitman served as national co-chair for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and later John McCain’s presidential campaign after Romney entered the race. Romney was her boss, “mentor and coach” at a managing consulting firm when she first came to California, she recalled.
Whitman has moderate views on social issues by Republican standards. She supported Proposition 8, the initiative banning gay marriage, but supports civil unions, the Los Angeles Times has reported. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she is pro-choice but supported Proposition 4, a parental notification measure for minors seeking the procedure.
Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Whitman was the oldest of three children. Encouraged by her mother to do things most women would never dream of in those days, Whitman became among the first women to graduate from Princeton University and later, Harvard Business School. She moved to California when her husband landed a neurosurgery residency in San Francisco. She held a variety of corporate positions including executive slots at Procter & Gamble, Disney, Stride-Rite and Hasbro before interviewing for a job at e-Bay. She accepted the offer and was surprised on her first day at work to find the receptionist was gone and “everyone was sitting in lawn chairs.” E-bay’s founder later admitted he hired a receptionist for the day because he’d feared Whitman wouldn’t take the job if she realized the fledgling company had such limited staff and office furnishings.
“We created a tool for small businesses to grow and thrive,” she said of her tenure at e-Bay. “The things I’m most proud of is that 1.3 million people make their living selling on e-Bay today. “I also saw how we have to defend small business from government,” she concluded, adding that taxation and regulations make doing business in California “much more difficult than it needs to be.”