SOUTH EL MONTE, Calif. Nov. 19, 2009 -- Republican Meg Whitman has never held office and only rarely voted, but the former eBay CEO's campaign for governor of California features a disciplined focus on three elements: creating jobs, cutting spending and improving education.
"Focus is incredibly important," Whitman told ABC News. "You can't do too many things with the Legislature. ... So, I promise you, every day, I am going to talk about jobs, spending, and education."
Whitman, who sat down Tuesday with ABC News after unveiling her Latino Coalition at El Cielito Restaurant in South El Monte, Calif., thinks her three-part agenda is necessary not only to put 2 million Californians back to work but also to expand the Republican share of the electorate among women, Latinos, and young voters.
To stop California from losing jobs to neighboring states, Whitman promises to impose a moratorium on new regulations.
"The Legislature has become a bill factory," said Whitman, referring to the Democratic-controlled Assembly and state Senate. "Two-thousand four-hundred bills this year alone. None of it is on point to the process that we're in. Let's stop adding new things. Let's sort out what we have."
She has not yet specified exactly how much taxes would come down or precisely how she would pay for this costly promise.
On the spending front, Whitman is promising to take a state workforce of 350,000 and "skinny it down" by 40,000. Beyond reducing "head count," she also wants to achieve an additional, unspecified $15 billion in cuts to state spending.
"When you shrink the size of a workforce, there is pain there," she added. "But there is no question: we have a government that we can no longer afford."
Asked if she would seek to reduce state spending by modifying the state's "Three Strikes" law which can result in 25-years-to-life prison sentences even if the "third strike" is a non-violent offense, Whitman ruled it out. She also opposes other sentencing reforms which would result in shorter sentences for non-violent offenders.
One reform she would consider in the area of the Department of Corrections is moving the state's prisoners out of state to lower the cost of housing them.
"I'd be trying to place them in neighboring states," said Whitman. "The cost of housing a prisoner in California is $49,000 a year ... the average in the United States is $25,000."
To improve an educational system which ranks 48th out of 50 states in the nation, Whitman wants to bring to California a package of reforms which were championed in Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
"For big, diverse states that have done a better job than California, all roads lead to Florida," said Whitman. "That's why I went down to visit (Jeb Bush) and his staff that pioneered this reform effort in Florida. And actually, that's where I got these three ideas: (1) grading every single public school; (2) more charter schools; and (3) paying better teachers more."
Whitman also wants to push budget and decision-making authority away from Sacramento and down to individual schools. Accomplishing this, she says, will require taking a tougher line with the powerful California Teachers Association.
"Republicans should own education because we can take a stand that is not in lockstep" with the unions, said Whitman.
Meg Whitman Eyeing California Governor Seat
As important as her stances on jobs, spending, and education are, Whitman's chances of winning in November may be influenced just as much by the hot-button issues that she is de-emphasizing as she battles former Rep. Tom Campbell and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for the GOP's gubernatorial nod.
Conservative stances on abortion hurt Republican gubernatorial candidates in California in the 1998 and 2002 general elections. Whitman, who supports abortion rights, is hoping to take the issue off the table in the general election by saying that her focus is elsewhere.
Poizner, one of Whitman's rivals, has hammered the former eBay CEO for supporting public funding of abortion for poor women through the state's Medicaid program, but so far he has struggled to gain traction, trailing not only Whitman but also Campbell in public opinion polls.
Asked what her goals would be in the area of abortion, Whitman said, "You know, it isn't at the top of my list. It is largely a federal issue. Much of the issues on how California money is spent is decided by the courts. So I wouldn't actually be making recommendations to change any of that. I want to spend 100 percent of my time focused on what I think I can make the biggest difference on as the governor of California."
Whitman is also working to improve the GOP's performance with the state's sizable Latino population by distancing herself from Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure championed by former Gov. Pete Wilson (R) which was designed to prohibit illegal immigrants from using social services, health care, and public education in California.
Even though Wilson was the first big-name Republican to join her campaign, Whitman says that 187 was bad policy and she agrees with a court ruling which gutted key provisions of it.
"With regards to 187, this has been well decided by the courts, we must provide services to children. And this is the right thing to do and was rightly decided by the court," said Whitman in response to an audience question. "We need to move beyond this."
While opposing liberal Democratic calls to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, Whitman is trying to improve the GOP's reputation with Latinos by saying she supports "comprehensive immigration reform," federal legislation which includes earned legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
Asked if she has received criticism from conservative Anglo voters for distancing herself from 187, Whitman said, "I have not felt too much pushback on something like 187. People understand that it was struck down by the courts and then I talk about securing the border, holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers, and ending sanctuary cities."
Wealthy candidates have not had a good track record getting elected to top posts in California: Michael Huffington, a 1994 candidate for U.S. Senate, Al Checchi, a 1998 candidate for governor, and Bill Simon, a 2002 candidate for governor, all went down to defeat.
Democratic strategists privately concede, however, that Whitman might stand a better chance because eBay, the on-line auction company which she used to head, has developed its reputation less as a top-down company and more as a platform which has made it possible for 1.3 million people to earn some or all of their living.
More than one of Whitman's supporters who participated in the Tuesday rollout of her Latino coalition in South El Monte told ABC News that they were behind the Republican businesswoman's campaign for governor because they think that she does not need to be loved the way they think Schwarzenegger does.
"I hope she gives the Legislature a lot of pain. I hope they're asking for Demerol," said former Republican congressional candidate Teresa Hernandez, the co-owner of El Cielito who hosted Whitman's Tuesday event. "The difference between her and Schwarzenegger is … he's an actor. I'm married to an entertainer. They have huge egos. They like to be liked, ultimately. So, when he got in there, I don't think he knew how hard it was going to be and that he was going to be hated and I think that's what made him waffle on so many issues."
"For her, I think it's OK if she goes up to the union and beats them up and they don't like her," Hernandez added. "I don't think she cares."
Brian Quintana, a registered Democrat backing Whitman, echoed Hernandez, saying that the state would benefit from a hard-nosed businesswoman who markets herself as having a "spine of steel."
Quintana, a Hollywood producer, said he also likes the way in which Whitman spent weeks sleeping overnight at eBay in 1999 when the company's website crashed. At the time, Whitman wanted to be there full-time because she thought the website crash threatened the company's future.
Asked if Californians might see her sleeping bag at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Whitman told ABC News, "You know, whatever it takes. ... If it takes sleeping bags in the Capitol, it wouldn't be the first time (laughter). I've done sleeping bags at the ops center at eBay, and it worked pretty well."