Nurses Have Whitman on the Run

by Randy Shaw on June 24, 2010

Remember back in December 2004 when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told nurses protesting staffing cuts that they were “special interests,” who “don’t like me in Sacramento because I kick their butt?” The California Nurses Association (CNA) then sued the Governor, and helped defeat all of his ballot measures in the November 2005 special election. Schwarzenegger never recovered from his battle with Rose Ann DeMoro and CNA, and now Meg Whitman has foolishly picked a fight with the nurses after demanding the union give her the home addresses and personal information of their members. No union would provide such information. Whitman’s request insulted the nurses by implying that CNA leaders were misinforming members about Whitman’s views, and that nurses are easily manipulated by CNA leaders. Now nurses have taken the offensive, and have the well-heeled candidate they call “Queen Meg” on the run.

Two weeks into her general election campaign, Meg Whitman has already proved that she has not followed politics in recent years. How else to explain her already picking a fight with CNA and Rose Ann DeMoro that the candidate cannot win, and that makes her look worse with each passing day?

Avoiding Public Debates

After spending a fortune to win the Republican nomination, Meg Whitman needed to show that her campaign goes beyond programmed ads and that she can answer questions before a public audience. CNA extended Whitman this opportunity, after the union understandably refused to hand over confidential member information to her campaign.

But Whitman refused CNA’s offer to meet with nurses in a neutral setting where both she and opponent Jerry Brown would take questions and discuss issues. What’s Whitman afraid of? Isn’t this the opportunity she sought to speak to nurses directly?

That’s certainly what many voters will be asking. And it’s a question Whitman herself opened up by her suggestion that CNA leaders were preventing nurses from getting the facts.

On June 21, CNA stepped up the pressure on Whitman by revising its offer. CNA offered the candidate solo appearances before groups of nurses, with unscripted audience questions moderated by non-partisan journalists. CNA is even willing to arrange as many forums as Whitman desires, giving the Republican the unfettered opportunity to make her case before thousands of nurses in person and thousands more watching via online streaming.

This really puts Whitman in a box.

If she participates in the forums, her responses on issues of staffing and patient care could further alienate a nurses’ community that has already posted a “Queen Meg” site on Facebook. But if she declines, Whitman looks like a coward. Even worse, she fulfills the criticism that she is a marketing campaign not a candidate, which is precisely the image she needs to refute.

Whitman appears to be trying to take the offensive.

On June 22, Whitman unveiled a Truth For Nurses website describing CNA Director DeMoro as “Boss Rose” and claiming she earns a “sky-high salary accompanied by a bloated payroll.” Whitman’s site also charges CNA with preventing “rank and file members” from getting “a full and accurate picture of Meg Whitman’s views.”

Big mistake.

Whitman is playing directly into CNA’s hands. This is the type of battle that DeMoro relishes, and Whitman is about to get a real lesson in politics, CNA style.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Whitman is going out of her way to put herself in exactly the position Schwarzenegger was in after his “kick the nurses butt’s” comment in 2004. She will soon find herself under siege, with few save havens to escape.

Refusing to attend either public debates or forums with nurses, Whitman will be followed at public appearances across the state by CNA members asking about her refusal. And since she is the one who started the fight by arguing that CNA was misinforming its members, any undecided event attendees are likely to wonder why Whitman is afraid to attend public nurse forums.

And do not think that CNA’s pressure will be kept out of the media spotlight. You can be sure that their presence will be at the televised candidate debates, and most high-profile events Whitman attends.

And their ongoing presence transforms the nurses set of issues into top campaign issues, when they would have been kept on the margins but for Whitman’s privacy-violating demand.

CNA has Meg Whitman on the run, and there are still over four months until Election Day. The end for the former eBay executive will not be pretty.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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