Billionaire Meg Whitman has flailed for the past week-and-a-half after being caught in the grip of her own massive contradictions on illegal immigration. What to do, what to do, for a candidate who's already spent well over $140 million and is losing? Try the kitchen sink comeback.
First Whitman and her panoply of pricey consultant/lobbyists falsely charged that Jerry Brown, who had already taken a slight lead in the race to replace Arnold Schwarzeneger as California's governor, caused her illegal immigrant woes. He didn't. We saw how well that worked when Whitman tried it face to face with Brown in debate. Then Camp Whitman tried linking Brown with Fidel Castro. Then Whitman's Fox News allies tried to move the focus to what the Obama Administration is going to do about Nicky Diaz. Then came a pair of new TV ads, one an attempt at a positive reboot, the other another attempt to paint Brown as a big tax-and-spender. All of which I'll get to after dealing with the latest distraction factor, the purported "whore" comment, in which Whitman's efforts turn on a private conversation and, to be as charitable as possible, sloppy reporting.
It's becoming a staple of flailing political campaigns for governor of California to produce arguably embarrassing recordings of private conversations. That's certainly what Phil Angelides did with his losing campaign against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. (With a key player calling me off the record to say that the unreleased portion was what really devastating, with Schwarzenegger dissing Mexicans. Which he did not.)
Context, clearly, is key. But these days, sensation comes first. So let's look at the sensational charge, recklessly echoed by the Los Angeles Times in a sloppy headline and even sloppier reporting, that Jerry Brown may have called billionaire Meg Whitman a "whore."
"Brown Or Aide Is Heard Slurring Whitman," reads the LA Times headline. Brown? Not even close. Not unless Brown is a ventriloquist with a knack for female voices. Or unless Brown had multiple sex change operations during the course of a brief conversation.
Yes, it's clearly a woman, not a man, who suggested the pejorative reference to Whitman's pandering to a public employee union. For some reason, no one else reported this.
Five weeks ago, Brown had phoned an official of the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) to lobby against their likely move to endorse Whitman. Brown is getting by far the bulk of law enforcement endorsements. But a longtime operator named Don Novey, ousted from his longtime perch as head of the prison guards union, resurfaced as consultant/consigliere for the LA cops union and for another outfit of far more miscellaneous law enforcement types called the California State Law Enforcement Association. He was getting his client the LAPPL to go with Whitman, with whom Novey has formed a working relationship. And Whitman, who rails against public employee unions and their purportedly big pensions, had agreed to exempt law enforcement officers from public pension reform.
Unlike Brown, who, despite being cast by Whitman as the toady of the unions, does not exempt any sort of public employee from public pension reform.
So Brown had left a voicemail message talking about the powerful campaign he was about to spin up after Labor Day, debunking some bogus poll and focus group Novey was telling his clients showed that Whitman was the easy winner of the race. So far, so good, not that it would make a difference with regard to this particular endorsement. But when he hung up the phone, it didn't disconnect the line, and the LA police union official got a recording of a brief impromptu Brown strategy session.
Which so deeply offended the Whitman campaign that it waited five weeks to release it, naturally.
Here's what the LA Times reported transpired:
"Do we want to put an ad out? ... That I have been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be -- that they'll go to Whitman, and that's where they'll go because they know Whitman will give 'em, will cut them a deal, but I won't," Brown said.
At that point, a voice -- either that of Brown or a second person -- can be heard saying: "What about saying she's a whore?"
"Well, I'm going to use that," Brown says. "It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect the pensions."
Well, that is some remarkably poor reporting. Here, incidentally, is the recording. You can hear the "What about saying she's a whore?" suggestion shortly after the 1:50 mark. This was sent to an LA Weekly staff reporter; it is presented with better audio than that of the LA Times and, unlike the Times version, in format such that you can fast forward to the most relevant part.
The voice suggesting that Whitman be slammed as a pandering whore kow-towing to a powerful public employee union is obviously not Brown's, whose voice is very distinctive throughout the tape.
In fact, the voice is obviously female.
But the new Times political reporter Seema Mehta somehow doesn't notice this, and says it may be Brown who makes the arguably offensive suggestion.
She also doesn't report that, prior to Brown saying he'll "use that," there is a lot of overlapping dialogue discussing how Whitman is selling out her supposed position on reforming public pensions in order to get a police union endorsement.
Mehta, incidentally, got a one-on-one talk early on with Whitman when Whitman wasn't talking to the press. Not that Whitman is talking to the press now, mind you.
Most California outlets got the key fact right, reporting that an unnamed Brown aide made the suggestion, not Brown himself.
Though none reported that the suggester is a woman, which is rather significant, considering that Camp Whitman, increasingly desperate to get the focus off illegal immigration, is charging sexism.
(After I reported this yesterday afternoon on my blog, New West Notes, a few other outlets, such as the Associated Press and the Sacramento Bee, did report that the voice is not that of a man. Which merely changes the entire direction of the story.)
The other problem with the Times report -- and the Times was the first outlet given this recording, by the LAPPL at the suggestion of Novey and his colleagues in the Whitman campaign -- is that it got picked up elsewhere.
Actually, it got spread elsewhere by the Whitman campaign.
On Time magazine pundit Mark Halperin's blog, for one, a Washington insider early morning stop which trumpeted the misinformation at the top of the page through the early morning hours.
Halperin, who has been a regular conduit for early viewings of Whitman commercials -- declaring the thoroughly dishonest Whitman ad using Bill Clinton footage the best of the election cycle (without ever mentioning that it was false) and using his blog to reveal video footage of Brown's gaffe (or gambit, take your pick) aggressively tweaking Clinton's 1992 comments -- then went on MSNBC's Morning Joe, the table-setting show for cable news culture, to push the story some more.
But it didn't go so well there with host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who was notably less than scandalized.
Halperin: "Let's make three things clear. He's said intemperate things in this race already, not great if you want to be the leader of California. Two, his campaign is not denying that this is an authentic recording... And three even if he didn't say it, he obviously was in the room when it was said and I think his campaign is going to have to..."
Scarborough: "Now you say there's an enhanced audio recording of this where you hear two things. One you hear a voice that sounds more like Jerry calling Meg Whitman "a whore" and also you can hear someone say 'The Walrus was Paul.'"
Halperin: "Yeah, coo-coo-ca-choo. Yeah, so we'll see. California politics is weird. This could be the dominant story of the day, it could be something that changes the contours of the race, or it could disappear. At this hour I couldn't tell you which but it does represent..."
Scarborough: "Well, you really narrowed that one down."
Halperin: "It does represent a real problem for him because he has said intemperate things and I think people are just tuning in to this race and it's well over the line."
Notice that Halperin acts throughout as though Brown said this himself, which he did not. Just as he acted as though Whitman's notorious ad wasn't a big lie effort.
But this isn't about what a twerp Mark Halperin is. (Here's my semi-pan review of his gossipy book on the 2008 presidential race, "Game Change," for the Huffington Post. Halperin never really got what was going on in 2008.)
For Brown, this can be brushed aside. For one thing, it's dirty pool for the LAPPL official to produce a voicemail message that is part and parcel of private communications. For another, what this actually represents is Brown standing up to public employee unions, and Whitman so desperate for these endorsements that she will compromise her supposed public pension reform imperatives.
Moving on to the rest of the kitchen sink.
Whitman has a new positive TV spot, which is actually a desperate reboot of her core message about running government like a business. She looks and sounds desperate in it.
She knows, she says, that government isn't like a business. (Even though she said from the beginning that she should be governor so she can run it like a business.) But still those business values will be very useful in running a government. That's more than a little confused, from a conceptual standpoint.
And Whitman has a new negative TV spot which takes her campaign in a very familiar and wrong direction.
Brown, it seems, is a big tax-and-spender.
There are two problems here. First, the Whitman campaign has been making these charges all along. Second, it's not true, and the record shows that.
The charges are tired, and the ad is visually very busy.
Yes, Brown campaigned against Prop 13. Then he turned around and implemented it, using his rainy day fund to save local government services in the process, earning the endorsement and vote of Prop 13 author Howard Jarvis. He even has TV footage of Jarvis praising him.
So if the ad gains enough traction to start to bite, Brown can bounce it back in a number of ways.
But he really should be clear on how to properly hang up a phone.
This little clown show is no "game changer" but it is a distraction he doesn't need. Unless he is cleverly setting up Whitman for the big reveal of her fake reformism on public employee unions. Nah.
Meanwhile, Fox News talkers are pressing the Obama Administration to do something about billionaire Meg Whitman's longtime illegal immigrant housekeeper, Nicky Diaz. This may help prevent conservative Republican base voters from abandoning Whitman's candidacy, but further guarantees that the spotlight remains on an issue damaging to Whitman, who once favored comprehensive immigration reform -- when she still employed Diaz -- but flip-flopped hard during the primary.
While the Foxsters try to pump up the ire of the right-wing base, the hits keep coming in California, from SEIU's Cambiando California $5 million TV ad campaign hitting Whitman in Spanish language media for her newfound hardline positions.
Perhaps the most amusing bit of flail from Camp Whitman came on October 5th, with a Daily Beast report on a Brown visit to Cuba over 10 years ago. The writer quoted, at great length, long-ago conversations with Brown in Cuba, leading up to the former governor and then Oakland mayor spending hours hanging out with Fidel Castro.
Tellingly, the writer reports that Brown had been five points behind Whitman prior to the revelation of the illegal immigrant housekeeper, which is both false and indicative of the timing of her piece. I have a number of thoughts on all this, including my amazement at the writer's precise memory of late night conversations from so long ago, but I won't even get into it because none of it really matters. Only zealots and cranks imagine that Brown is pro-Communist, and he's not running for governor of Florida.
Which apparently Whitman chief strategist Mike Murphy, who orchestrated the promotion of this story before it obviously fell flat, doesn't quite grasp.
As he did not grasp in his days as Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief political strategist when I caught him using Schwarzenegger's photo as a logo on every page of proposals for corporate lobbying contracts. He said he didn't see anything wrong with doing that, since he was doing the same thing with his client in Florida, then Governor Jeb Bush. I reminded Murphy that he was in California, not Florida, and the Arnold brand is very different from the Bush brand.
Murphy proved that he still didn't get the point when he helped lead Schwarzenegger into his 2005 special election initiatives debacle, which led directly to his departure from Schwarzenegger and the end of his blossoming California lobbying business. Until he latched on to Whitman, that is.
In addition to the big advertising campaign against Whitman on her illegal immigrant stance, events are happening and will keep on happening.
In a press conference a few days ago, Nicky Diaz said that no one put her up to disclosing that Whitman had long employed her despite her undocumented status and ample reason to believe that she was not a legal resident of the United States.
She said she did so to shed light on the plight of undocumented workers who live in the "shadows" and are treated poorly.
"Meg Whitman was wrong when she said somebody put a gun to my head. Nobody did. I spoke out because I want people to know who Meg Whitman really is and I am glad that I did. I want to be heard," she said.
"I knew the risk of speaking out and I was afraid for my family. Despite my fear, I decided to come out from the shadows, the shadows in which millions of people live every day," she said. "It's not fair that we work hard and then get thrown away like garbage. We have families to support like you do. We are here. We need you just like you need us. Meg Whitman, don't say I was part of your family because you never treated me like I was."
Attorney Gloria Allred has filed a claim against Whitman for unpaid wages and mileage with the California Department of Industrial Relations. A hearing is set for October 20th.
Will Whitman contest the claim, which is for less than $7000? Or will she seek a continuance until after the election? Either move is problematic for her.
Meanwhile, presssure is mounting for Whitman to have the Social Security Administration release follow-up letters sent to her regarding Diaz's bogus ID. You'll recall that Whitman first denied the existence of any such letter, then claimed that if it did exist that Diaz must have stolen it. Thus accusing her of a federal offense.
Then, when confronted with a copy of the first such letter, bearing the handwriting of Whitman's husband, Dr. Griff Harsh IV, Whitman claimed he had never mentioned it to her. And he, naturally, claimed he'd forgotten about it.
Late on Thursday, Whitman contributed another $2.5 million to her campaign warchest, taking her official personal contribution to $121.5 million, by far a record for any American politician in any race, from the presidency on down. But the true total, as I've reported from the beginning, is at least $2 million more than that when you add in the admitted $1 million-plus given to Murphy for his credit-free Hollywood production company two days after he cut ties with Whitman primary rival Steve Poizner and heavy unreported early spending on consultants, research, and travel.
Whitman had spent over $140 million by the end of September, by far the record for any non-presidential campaign in American history.
Brown, who had spent barely $11 million, had over $22.5 million to spend for the last month of his campaign for governor of California. That is a great deal of money, and testament to his disciplined Zen rope-a-dope approach to the campaign.
Unless he keeps forgetting to hang up the phone, it should be enough.