By John Fund
November 28, 2009
When Carly Fiorina sat down to speak with me recently, I was briefly taken aback. The former CEO of Hewlett Packard and current candidate for U.S. Senate from California was sporting a close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hairdo. Having completed six months of treatment for breast cancer, the 55-year-old Ms. Fiorina has dispensed with the auburn wig she’d been wearing as her hair grows back.
She says her health is now fine, and that “after chemotherapy Barbara Boxer isn’t that scary anymore,” referring to the three-term Democratic incumbent she wants to unseat in 2010.
On a more serious note, she says that “in these hard times, a lot of people across the spectrum will listen to my message – that California can only recover if we encourage economic growth and restrain spending and job-killing regulation.”
With a 12.5% unemployment rate, the Golden State is certainly in trouble. In 2007 alone, 260,000 Californians moved to states with more opportunity.
Ms. Fiorina is not shy in pointing out what’s to blame. “The high tax, big government, regulatory regime we see in California is the current course and speed for where the nation is headed,” she warns. “California is a great test case, a factual demonstration that those programs don’t work.” She notes that while state spending has significantly outstripped inflation in recent years, every year government services perform more poorly and it becomes harder to open a business.
Voters may also be in the mood for new leadership. “I’m not a professional politician, I’m a problem solver,” she emphasizes, contrasting her record with that of the 69-year-old Ms. Boxer. That record is fairly stark: By most measures, Ms. Boxer has been an unbending ideologue during her three terms, as illustrated by her 95% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 2008.
Given the deep national recession and a state economy deep in the red, Ms. Fiorina is especially critical of Ms. Boxer’s opposition to “virtually every trade agreement.” Ms. Fiorina also chides Ms. Boxer for the latter’s lockstep support for the public employee unions that she claims enjoy “outsized political influence” in California.
On the environment, Ms. Fiorina faults the senator for ignoring pleas from farmers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore water flows to California’s Central Valley, which have been restricted by two controversial biological assessments by the government that asserted the local delta smelt was endangered: “I’ve seen the devastation and massive unemployment that [the water restrictions have] caused.”
Ms. Fiorina makes clear she takes the issue of climate change seriously. But she argues that global warming is best addressed through more innovation, new technology and energy efficiency, areas in which California has excelled. The scientific debate on the extent of global warming should continue, she says. Meanwhile, cleaner technologies such as nuclear power should be encouraged.
“We must take advantage of every source of energy,” she emphasizes, and forthrightly tackles a taboo subject in a state that has restricted off-shore drilling since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “Technology has fundamentally changed the extraction of oil and natural gas,” she says. That means California can protect the environment at the same time it opens up new areas of exploration.
Ms. Fiorina also is fascinated by the political potential of technology. “We need more transparency and accountability in government so that people know how their money is being spent,” she says. “That means putting budgets online, putting legislation online.” She’s convinced that if citizens can play a greater watchdog role it will be easier to keep a check on higher spending and taxes.
“I will not run away from [conservative] values,” Ms. Fiorina says, noting that she has signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge against higher taxes and voted for Proposition 8 last year, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. On abortion, Ms. Fiorina says she is “proudly pro-life” and a strong opponent of taxpayer funding of abortions.
But her views also carry some nuance. She notes she created a strong program of domestic partner benefits while at HP. As for changing existing laws on abortion, she acknowledges, “I know, as a realist, that not everyone agrees with me. So the common ground we can find is how to reduce abortions.”
Can a conservative win in California given the shellacking John McCain, for whom Ms. Fiorina was a top economic adviser, got in the state last year? Her crisp answer is yes, noting that “the timing is now against Boxer” because “Californians are worried about whether they will have a job along with ballooning federal spending and deficits.”
California has a long tradition of electing outsiders to statewide office – from Ronald Reagan to educator S.I. Hayakawa (to the U.S. Senate) to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In tough economic times, California may well be tempted to elect a former CEO who thinks the Congress needs common-sense people like herself.
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