SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5 / AP) — Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman faced an unusually tough crowd Wednesday during a stop at the online review site Yelp, where young staffers bombarded her with questions about her negative ads, her record-breaking spending and her stance against gay marriage.
It was a far cry from the highly scripted campaign stops the former eBay chief executive has grown accustomed to during her campaign for California governor.
Whitman was forced to defend an ad she is running that features footage of former President Bill Clinton criticizing her rival, Jerry Brown, in a 1992 presidential debate. Some of the claims about Brown’s record as governor from 1975 to 1983 have been debunked.
Whitman said running the ad is the right thing to do and that “the essentials of that ad are absolutely true.”
The billionaire also came under fire for contributing millions of dollars from her personal fortune, a personal spending rate that has now surpassed any other political candidate in American history, at $119 million.
Susan McKay, 24, an advertising account executive who asked the first question after Whitman’s prepared speech, set the tone by calling Whitman’s ad misleading and accusing the GOP nominee of using “smear tactics” throughout her campaign.
Whitman defended the ad and said that the unions that support Brown have spent nearly $17 million on attack ads against her and that she needed to respond.
“My view is, I have to, as a serious candidate for governor, point out actually Jerry Brown’s real record,” she said.
Whitman, whose ads have played for months in every TV market in California, noted that she has also run positive spots explaining her platform. She said that because she is spending so much of her own money, she won’t be beholden to special interests if she wins.
Despite her vast fortune, however, Whitman has spent much of the summer aggressively courting donors around the country.
McKay, who described herself as a Democrat who is undecided on her vote for governor, said later that Whitman did not address her concerns.
“People are just tired of hearing negative things,” she said. “We don’t need to be reminded that California is in a dire situation. That’s obvious to all Californians. … The ideas are great but there’s not a lot of backing up those ideas with actual plans for the future.”
While Whitman regularly visits small businesses and tech startups, particularly in the Silicon Valley, she found a different crowd at Yelp’s five-floor headquarters in the heart of liberal San Francisco. About 250 employees listened to Whitman’s speech in a conference area next to foosball and ping-pong tables and a kitchen that featured snacks and beer on tap.
She said she was invited to the company by chief executive and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman, who knew Whitman when he was vice president of engineering at PayPal, which was acquired by Whitman’s eBay. Yelp spokesman Vince Sollitto said the company has also invited Brown to speak.
A spokesman for Brown, Sterling Clifford, said the campaign received an invitation just last week and is considering whether the AG can fit it into his schedule.
The former CEO tried to keep the focus on the hallmarks of her platform: cutting state spending by eliminating waste, making government more efficient by using technology and improving public schools.
But she faced several uncomfortable moments when staffers questioned her about her opposition to gay marriage, both during the event’s official question-and-answer session and afterward.
The GOP nominee said she favors civil unions over gay marriage, and that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown, the state’s attorney general, had a duty to appeal a federal court decision that found California’s anti-gay marriage initiative Proposition 8 unconstitutional.
“It’s not up to the attorney general to decide whether they think things are constitutional or not,” Whitman said.
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