Meg Whitman’s Very Bad Week

The GOP frontrunner in the governor's race pissed off the state's press corps and then got caught staging a "town-hall" event.

Last week will likely go down as the worst of Meg Whitman’s short political career. It began when she angered the state’s political press corps at the Port of Oakland, and then later, she was captured on video fraudulently staging a “town-hall” event. Finally, by week’s end, she was attempting to turn things around by attacking her political opponents. But it remains to be seen whether her new offensive will allow her to hide what promises to be her Achilles’ heel.

What last week proved more than anything is that the former eBay CEO has a lot in common with ex-GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. That is, she has extreme difficulty going off script. Back in 2008, Palin took the unprecedented step of refusing to hold a single press conference during the run-up to the presidential election. Anybody who witnessed the Katie Couric interview train wreck understood why. Whitman, likewise, has spent the past few months scrupulously avoiding the mainstream media, except for the occasional sit-down with a right-leaning columnist. She has held no press conferences either.

Instead, she spent a sizeable portion of her substantial wealth on radio and TV ads, blanketing the airwaves during the Winter Olympics. The canned messages also appeared to be working. According to a poll conducted for the liberal web site Daily Kos, Whitman had closed to within four points of the Democratic Party presumptive nominee Jerry Brown (45-41) by the beginning of last week. Whitman, in fact, has been gaining on Brown for the past year, in part because the former Oakland mayor has run one of the most invisible gubernatorial campaigns in recent memory.

But that was all before the Port of Oakland press debacle. Whitman’s campaign had invited the media for a tour of the Union Pacific Railroad facility. But then the candidate refused to answer any questions and decided to wall off the press in an isolated room. Whitman’s people claimed that it was Union Pacific’s decision. But a company spokesman admitted that it had been Whitman’s campaign who decided to keep the press at bay.

The resulting front-page stories and TV news exposés not only were embarrassing, but they seemed to reveal something deeper about Whitman’s character. The former Silicon-Valley-executive-turned-political-neophyte apparently doesn’t like being questioned. This obvious political flaw then became more pronounced when an operative from the rival GOP campaign of Steve Poizner caught Whitman on video, trying to make a fake town-hall meeting look real. The YouTube hit showed Whitman telling a friendly audience that “lots of cheering would be good” for her.

Apparently, all the bad press was too much for the media-averse candidate to endure. So by week’s end, she called her first-ever press conference and went on the offensive. Whitman began by calling Poizner the worst name in right-wing politics these days — “a liberal Republican.” But then pesky reporters forced Whitman to acknowledge that she had voted for Poizner for state insurance commissioner in 2002. It was one of the few times that she had voted at all in her adult life.

But the billionaire wasn’t done. Her campaign also launched an attack against Brown, alleging that he was illegally coordinating with a supposed “independent” political committee that plans to spend millions trying to defeat her. Whitman’s operatives filed a complaint with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, noting that the independent committee, Level the Playing, is run by former Brown aides who helped him become attorney general four years ago. Committee officials, however, say they’re not working with Brown these days. And while allegations like Whitman’s might make for good headlines, they’re very difficult to prove.

Berkeley Official Admits Lawbreaking

Ryan Lau, who serves on Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board, admitted to violating city law while doing work on his home, according to the Oakland Tribune. Lau, who is also an aide to Berkeley Councilman Darryl Moore, acknowledged that he did not pull the proper permits or pay for them when he remodeled his garage and turned it into living quarters last year.

Failing to pull and pay for city permits is not particularly unusual. But for Lau, it’s problematic because his job on the zoning board includes making sure that Berkeley’s construction regulations are followed. In other words, he confessed to violating some of the very same laws that he is entrusted with upholding, and he’s now facing some stiff penalties.

Nonetheless, there are no indications as of yet that Lau will resign from the board or will stop working for Moore. Lau’s lawbreaking was first reported in the online version of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Three-Dot Roundup

The Oakland teachers’ union decided to postpone its one-day strike for a month because it would be illegal to stage a walkout before a fact-finding report is complete. … Five Oakland middle schools, meanwhile, proved that education reforms don’t always work. The state listed them as persistently failing last week even though they had all undergone radical reforms in recent years. … San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officially jumped into the race for lieutenant governor. He should easily win the Democratic Party nomination, but the November general election against moderate Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado promises to be more difficult — especially if the governor is successful at appointing Maldonado as the interim lieutenant governor. … Republican state Senator Roy Ashburn, who maintained an anti-gay stance throughout his political career, admitted last week that he is gay. … And a court commissioner awarded half of the SF Weekly‘s ad revenues to the San Francisco Bay Guardian as down payment on a $20 million jury verdict from 2008. The Weekly has appealed the verdict and the commissioner’s decision.

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