Romney playing role in Calif. governor race

His support of Whitman could aid ambitions

A victory by Meg Whitman in the race for California governor could deliver Mitt Romney a foothold in a Democratic state. A victory by Meg Whitman in the race for California governor could deliver Mitt Romney a foothold in a Democratic state. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)
By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON - From a Lexington office complex, Mitt Romney's political action committee has ensured the former presidential candidate's omnipresence on cable news shows, Republican rally stages, and antistimulus T-shirts, the last available with a $50 contribution to his Free and Strong America PAC.

But for the next year and a half, the center of Romney's political universe will shift west to Sacramento, where key parts of his operation have reassembled on behalf of Meg Whitman, a longtime friend and former business colleague who this month entered next year's Republican primary to become the governor of California.

The former eBay CEO is still readying her headquarters, but it has already become something of a campaign-in-exile for Romney's ambitions, which could include another presidential run in 2012. His leading fund-raisers and top aides, including one known as the former Massachusetts governor's "sixth son," have already signed on with Whitman. Today Romney will appear with Whitman at the state Republican convention, where he is expected to endorse her.

"Mitt's going to be involved in dozens and dozens of races, but one that he's particularly excited about is the race for governor of California," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney spokesman.

A Whitman victory could deliver Romney a valuable foothold in a state that will likely be a big, early prize on the Republican nominating calendar. Her 2010 campaign will also offer a proving ground for how a candidate like Romney could compete on traditionally Democratic terrain, selling pragmatic, business-minded remedies for the nation's economic illnesses.

Romney and Whitman both harshly criticized the $787 billion stimulus package championed by President Obama and congressional Democrats, saying it includes too much bloated spending and not enough tax cuts. Whitman is also railing against the plan, signed into law yesterday, of tax increases and spending cuts to plug California's $42 billion budget deficit, saying in a statement it "will kill jobs, hurt families, and make future deficits worse."

The parallel careers of Romney and Whitman - fellow Harvard Business School graduates and Bain & Co. consultants - appeared to diverge during the 1990s, when Romney entered politics and Whitman stayed in the corporate world. As Romney ran for office in Massachusetts, and led Salt Lake City's 2002 Olympic Committee, Whitman became CEO of eBay, which helped to make her a billionaire.

In the last two years, the trajectories of the two, who both declined to be interviewed for this story, have intersected again. Whitman was an early and prominent Romney backer, the most visible business figure raising money on his behalf. Now she is positioning herself much as Romney did in his first, ultimately unsuccessful race, for US Senate in 1994, as a moderate supportive of abortion rights and a fiscal conservative with managerial acumen rare in politics.

"People that supported Mitt would probably also be drawn to the executive experience Meg had in the private sector and think it would be very beneficial in governing the state," said Spencer Zwick, who met Whitman when he directed Romney's presidential fund-raising operation and is now her senior adviser and finance chairman.

It is the first time Zwick, a Utah native who became so close to Romney while working for his Olympic organization that he is treated as part of the family, is working for a politician other than Romney. Zwick, now a partner with Romney's son Tagg in Solamere Capital, says he will stay in Boston but travel regularly to California, where the equity firm has business interests.

On Whitman's campaign, Zwick will work alongside deputy campaign manager and finance director Don Stirling, a professional fund-raising consultant who worked for Romney's campaigns and PACs and who was appointed by Romney to head the Massachusetts Sports & Entertainment Committee.

In late 2006, Zwick and Stirling were both involved in controversial outreach to Mormon church leaders to enlist support for Romney's presidential campaign, the Globe reported at the time. Stirling participated in meetings at the Salt Lake City headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which as a nonprofit institution is prohibited by tax laws from participating in electoral politics. Whitman's campaign declined to make Stirling available for an interview.

Other members of Whitman's staff include veterans of Romney's California team, including his senior adviser and finance director in the state. This week, Whitman's exploratory committee unveiled a finance committee that includes several Romney donors, including Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, former Northwest Airlines chairman Gary L. Wilson, and investor Thomas R. Tellefsen, who served as Romney's national finance chairman. Others on the list demonstrate the range of West Coast entrepreneurialism, from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme to weight-loss specialist Jenny Craig.

In the Republican primary, Whitman will face state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, also a retired tech executive, and possibly former US Representative Tom Campbell. A number of Democrats, including former governor Jerry Brown, are considering their own campaigns to replace Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cannot run again. .

Whitman, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, is likely to create one of the best-funded campaigns in the country this year, a presidential-style operation at the state level. But aides to both Whitman and Romney downplayed the idea that Romney's confidants gave him an unusual presence on her staff.

"My sense is that Meg Whitman is attracting talent from across the political spectrum," said Fehrnstrom. "She's attracting people who were affiliated with Rudy Giuliani, with John McCain, with Mitt Romney, with all the candidates in 2008."

Yet Romney is the only one of the three considered a possible 2012 presidential candidate, and if Whitman won, backing from the governor of the largest state could offer him a key boost.

Last year, Romney's last hope for a campaign comeback ended when Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist , came out just before his state's primary for McCain. By the time the race reached California, in February, Romney's bid was lost, and he withdrew after the primary.

Shortly thereafter, Whitman became cochairwoman of McCain's campaign and raised millions for him from the Silicon Valley sources she had previously tapped for Romney. McCain suggested Whitman as a possible Treasury secretary.

After the election, Whitman flattered McCain while appearing to criticize his campaign apparatus for its poor outreach to Latino and young voters, its failure to integrate new technology, and its lost credibility on issues of education, the environment, and healthcare.

"John McCain was the best possible candidate the Republicans could have nominated, and I started out with Mitt Romney," Whitman said at a gathering of the Republican Governors Association in November. Yet "Republicans are losing market share at an alarming rate . . . If we were losing market share at a company like eBay at that rate, heads would roll."

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at

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