SACRAMENTO — For Meg Whitman, there is at least one problem in government worth throwing money at: getting elected.
The billionaire former eBay CEO is using her personal fortune in her campaign for California governor like no other candidate in U.S. political history: $119 million so far on months of wall-to-wall advertising, private jets, dozens of six-figure consultants and other expenses to spread her message of government austerity.
It has helped her outdistance a millionaire Republican in the primary and reach a virtual dead heat with Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown in recent polls. But it has also given Democrats a countermessage: that Whitman is trying to buy the office after decades of showing little interest in political issues.
Pumping in $15 million of her own money this week pushed Whitman past New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's previous personal spending record of $109 million - and the election is still a month and a half away.
The political goodies she's bankrolled include an iPhone app that lets supporters sign up to help or contribute. She even shelled out for a cable TV spot that let viewers order a Whitman bumper sticker by pressing a button on their remote control.
Whitman defended her spending Wednesday at the San Francisco headquarters of the online review site Yelp, where employees criticized her approach.
"My job is to spend money to get out this message," Whitman replied. "And to make sure every Californian has all the information they need to make an informed decision. It takes a lot of money to be competitive in California."
Her chief strategist, Mike Murphy, makes $90,000 a month, and there are six-figure salaries for dozens of others, many of whom hail from the campaigns of outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.
Brown has a reputation as a penny-pincher who lived in a modest apartment rather than the governor's mansion when he held the job in the 1970s. He has relied on donated services to help keep his campaign afloat for much of the year. Filings show he has raised about $28 million in all, and he only recently began airing his own TV spots.
Brown spent less than $500,000 through June, the most recent spending report on file. Unlike Whitman, however, he did not face a serious primary challenger.
Whitman spent $71 million to defeat millionaire state Treasurer Steve Poizner in the June 8 primary. That works out to $65.29 per vote, the second-highest in California history even when accounting for inflation, according to the state's election watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Since New York City is much smaller than California, Bloomberg's spending amounted to much more per vote: about $185.
Bloomberg said Thursday that Whitman's campaign largesse is proof she cares about California.
"It's hard to argue that she doesn't in her heart of hearts think that she can make that state better," he said. "I don't think there's any better evidence of that than her spending her own money."
While Bloomberg rejected donations, Whitman has courted wealthy friends and tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to Florida, ringing up $24 million from outside sources, partly to help fund her campaign and also to prove her legitimacy as a first-time candidate. She spent more than $99 million of her war chest by June 30.
Whitman, whose wealth was estimated at $1.3 billion by Forbes magazine in March, says she is compelled to spend so much because of Democrats' 2.3 million edge in voter registration and because of unions that support Brown and are helping prop up his campaign. Expenditure records filed with the state show union groups have spent about $12 million so far attacking Whitman's candidacy, separate from Brown's spending.
For Whitman, 54, her wealth goes along with the narrative that she is an outsider to politics, unlike Brown, who was governor from 1975-83, ran for president three times and has spent most of his 72 years in the public eye.
Brown does not appear to have stepped up his fundraising, pulling in just shy of $4 million since the end of June.
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said Whitman's lack of civic involvement until recently adds to the appearance she is trying to buy her way into office. Whitman admitted she rarely voted for about 28 years.
"People kind of think here's this person, never bothered to vote, was never active in any kind of community affairs in the state ... just decides to buy the governor's office. It becomes off-putting, and after a while you become immune to the advertisements," Burton said.
Whitman has apologized for her poor voting record, saying she was preoccupied with work and family. But she has dedicated her time and finances now to trying to turn around the state she says she loves too much to let fail.
Her open wallet is in contrast to her austerity plans for California. She is promising if elected to dramatically cut state spending, eliminate 40,000 state workers, scale back pension benefits and cut the welfare system, which she says is bloated and unaffordable.
The California Nurses Association, which backs Brown, quickly seized on that irony, launching a campaign in which a character dressed as "Queen Meg" follows Whitman to events. It organized a rally of hundreds of nurses this summer outside Whitman's home on a leafy street in the tony San Francisco Bay town of Atherton.
Her spending has prompted criticism that she's pushing the not-so-rich out of politics altogether. After all, she was asked this week, if wealthy, self-funded candidates didn't spend so much, maybe politicians wouldn't need to raise so much from special interests?
"I can't comment on what it means for the future of politics," she said. "What it means is that I have the ability to do what's right without being beholden to people who have financed my campaign."
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