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Nurses protest Whitman in California governor campaign

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By Jack Chang
Sacramento Bee
June 2, 2010

WESTMINSTER – After spending more than $80 million and building a major lead in public opinion polls, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman may finally have met her match Tuesday in the parking lot of the Asian Garden Mall.

The billionaire candidate was delivering her stump speech to about 150 people at an open-air rally when about 50 protesters from the California Nurses Association and its schoolteacher allies interrupted by chanting and blowing whistles just a few dozen yards away.

Flanked by banners reading "Take Back Sac," Whitman finished her speech without acknowledging the protesters and later said she wouldn't let the unions stop her from talking about her plans for the state. But it was clear Tuesday that the nurses union was aiming to play the giant killer again this election year.

"We hope we got people to look at the other side and figure out what's going on," said Long Beach-based nurse Margie Keenan, who took part in the protest. "It's pretty sad. We're the working people of California. We're the ones who she's trying to cut our pensions. … That's firefighters, nurses, people on the front lines who take care of the community."

The unions will be repeating history if they manage to wound Whitman this election year. They proved to be powerful opponents six years ago when they took on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the height of his popularity upset nurses by delaying a plan to lower state nurse- patient staffing ratios.

About 15 nurses began what turned out to be a pitched battle by interrupting the Governor's Conference on Women in December 2004, inspiring Schwarzenegger to say from the stage, "They are the special interests. Special interests in Sacramento don't like me because I am always kicking their butts."

The nurses ended up doing the butt-kicking the next year by relentlessly following the governor around the state and helping defeat several government reform initiatives Schwarzenegger had put on the ballot and championed.

"Both the teachers and nurses in '05 showed that they could do almost a tea party-like organization and they could put in the money and advertising with a message California voters could respond to," said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser.

"That'll be the true test of teacher union power, to see if they have the money and message to support (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown's campaign," Kousser added.

Three independent expenditure committees, at least two of them heavily funded by unions, have been threatening to ramp up advertising and other activities against Whitman if she wins the Republican nomination.

So far, they've been hitting Whitman mostly in press releases on her ties to the investment firm Goldman Sachs and her record as CEO of online auction firm eBay.

Brown debuted his first TV ad Tuesday, slamming Whitman and the other major GOP hopeful, Steve Poizner, for running hours of negative ads.

Whitman said in Westminster that the unions wouldn't stop her from talking about her top priorities for the state, which include cutting state employee numbers and government spending.

"I'm just going to do the same thing over and over again, which is talking about what I think matters most to Californians, which is jobs and spending and fixing our K-12 education system," Whitman said.

The nurses association will strike again today by running a Spanish-language radio ad highlighting Whitman's ties to former Gov. Pete Wilson, who is her campaign co-chairman. Wilson championed a 1994 voter initiative targeting illegal immigrants and is considered by many to be a liability in Republican attempts to attract Latino supporters.

The unions have spent less time protesting Whitman rival Steve Poizner, who addressed several dozen people in Villa Park on Tuesday afternoon. The most recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed Poizner trailing Whitman by 24 percentage points.

"We're doing (protests) for the eventual GOP nominee," said nurses union spokesman Shum Preston. The nurses and teachers didn't show up at Poizner's event Tuesday.

That didn't stop Poizner from warning his Villa Park audience that the unions would be playing a big role this election year, even if those unions have been going after Whitman instead.

"The unions and the Democrats, they're going to want to win," Poizner said. "I mean, they're going to want to win in a big way. And they're going to say and do anything."

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