11.12.10

They Blew Through Millions

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina claimed they wanted to help the world by dipping their toes into politics—but their failed races were mostly about ego. How could they have better spent a combined $217 million? How about college tuition for 23,000? Or school lunches for 15 million? The Daily Beast’s Gail Sheehy crunches the numbers.

In a year that broke all the records for money spent on campaigns, some candidates threw away enough of their own wealth to make even Mayor Bloomberg blush. Take Jeff Greene, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Florida, who spent $23,808,789, with only about $4,000 coming from outside contributions. Each of the 284,948 votes cast in his favor cost $83.55.

Then there are the women. This election was really a tale of three little girls who grew up to make so much money, they didn’t know what to do with it. Between Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Linda McMahon, they gave $217 million to the “cause” of getting themselves elected as national political leaders.

Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, and Linda McMahon were anointed Tea Party favorites by Sarah Palin. And Mama Grizzly has laid down the conservative scenario for women who want to capitalize on their national fame to pose as political revolutionaries, pledging to save the citizens of their states from an unemployment sinkhole and their children from educational dead ends.

Whitman spent $143.6 million of her own billions during her unsuccessful run for governor of California. California Watch tallies her expenditures at more than $160 million, and the group says that number could rise by the time the last month of campaigning is tallied. Using the official expenditure number, each of the 3,748,669 votes cast in the former eBay CEO’s favor cost $38.32.

Fiorina spent $16.7 million during her unsuccessful run for senator of California, according to the most recent official records, including more than $5.5 million of her own money.

McMahon, the wrestling impresario, spent $41.9 million during her unsuccessful run for senator of Connecticut, about $97,000 of which came from outside contributions.

So much for our assumption that when women get paid as much as men in corporate life, they will be more generous and nurturing to those without.

So much for our assumption that when women get paid as much as men in corporate life, they will be more generous and nurturing to those without.

These three exceptional women could have integrated the top 40 list of wealthiest Americans who are carrying on the generous tradition of philanthropy in our society. Instead of pumping their millions into doomed ego trips, they could have taken the Giving Pledge, a commitment by some of the wealthiest Americans to give away a good chunk of their fortunes to educate the next generation and provide social services where government is tapped out—or soon to be starved out by the new Tea Party crowd in Congress.

These tough ladies apparently didn’t hear the call from Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, who created the Giving Pledge, expecting it would unleash “the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy.” But after a midterm election dominated by conservative Republicans raging against our ballooning national debt and the government stimulus package that prevented the Great Recession from metastasizing into a Great Depression, the pledge has not inspired new major private gifts. Instead, at a time when joblessness seems stuck interminably at 9-plus percent and health-care costs keep spiraling out of calculable sight, these women all campaigned for an extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans like themselves.

This is a sea change in the post-feminist era. These women belong to a new breed of self-promoting opportunists, paving the way for women to escape their image as selfless givers, nurturers by nature. Not for them the Judeo-Christian philosophy, which holds that only by bequeathing much of what one has earned to those less fortunate can one earn it anew and possess it.

Instead of laying out a combined $217 million to run for office, Whitman, Fiorina, and McMahon could have saved America’s commuters some serious cash. They could have footed the toll bill for half of the 52.1 million vehicles that cross the George Washington Bridge yearly, or one-third of the 102.2 million vehicles that cross the Bay Bridge.

Whitman’s spending could have bought full tuition for 23,553 California residents at the University of California-Berkeley, which would almost double current undergraduate enrollment. She could have made 95,764 connections for at-risk youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles. Or, if she wanted to be known as the Savior of San Jose, she could have wiped out the megalopolis’ budget deficit twice over.

Yet this Silicon Valley mogul didn’t choose to fill the coffers of a state with a $20 billion budget deficit and a once-model public university education system teetering on the brink of collapse. Maybe she should be excused for knowing little about her adopted state’s political history, as she never voted in 40 years of elections, or even registered in California.

In an interview with MSNBC that aired October 26, Whitman said: “If we don’t put Californians back to work, if we don’t jump-start this economy—you know, you hear the stories every day, I see the heartbreak every single day—and so I think people are beginning to understand how I feel about this. They know I care a lot about this state and I’m investing a lot of my own money. And, you know, people say, ‘Gosh, that’s—this seems like such a big thing to do.' But it’s because I care.”

Fiorina’s expenditure of more than $16 million during her run for senator of California bought her 3,827,046 votes, which cost $4.35 apiece. During the six years she ran H-P as both CEO and chairwoman, she laid off 30,000 workers. With the endorsement of Palin, Fiorina called for repeal of Obama’s health-care legislation, overturning Roe vs. Wade, and returning California’s unspent stimulus funds to the Treasury.

But she didn’t see the pain under her nose when she hosted a press conference in Bakersfield, California, one of 12 metropolitan areas in the U.S. where the unemployment rate is a sky high 15-plus percent.

In a KPCC debate with Senator Barbara Boxer on September 29, Fiorina spoke from the standard script of a true political reformer: “Our farmers still don’t have water, our children aren’t getting educated well, our small businesses are being crushed. People can’t find a job. Our debt is spiraling out of control. And that is why a woman came up to me recently and said, ‘I’m voting for you because I’m afraid for my children’s future.’”

Too bad that woman didn’t tell Fiorina her total campaign spending could have doubled the total assets of Goodwill of Southern California. It could have fully funded Pajaro Valley Unified School District for a year, saving the schools’ sports programs. Or, if Fiorina wanted to befriend folks closer to her mansion in Northern California, she could have increased the budget eight-fold of Raphael House, which provides low-income family services and shelter in San Francisco. Maybe she would have earned more headlines if she’d used her campaign budget to go global and purchase one million bed nets to combat malaria in Africa or provide micro-loans to more than 350,000 small businesses in South Africa, most of them to poor women.

McMahon, who laid out $41 million during her run for senator of Connecticut, and her partner-husband had amassed a net worth estimated at at least $1.1 billion as of 10 years ago. Each of the 498,306 votes cast in her favor cost $84.08. That would have covered a full year’s worth of salary and benefits for 802 state employees facing furloughs because of the state’s budget shortfall. It could have provided heating assistance to Connecticut families in need for seven years. It could have paid for 15 million school lunches across the whole country, or paid for two years of enhanced security for our troops in Iraq.

“Layoffs are hard,” she said during an October debate. “They’re really tough to do but sometimes you have to make tough decisions in order for your company to move forward.”

She should know. In recession-plagued 2009, her company, World Wrestling Entertainment, laid off 10 percent of its work force.

Clark Merrefield provided the research for this story.

Gail Sheehy is author of 15 bestselling books, including the revolutionary Passages . Her new book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, was published in May by HarperCollins.