Seeking public office not the best use of your money

You’ve got a few hundred million dollars and time on your hands. You’re ambitious, energetic and bursting with your can-do spirit. There’s an executive opening to fix a broken company saddled with debt.

Yet the smart money says you should start volunteering at a local food bank. Or hatch a nonprofit to benefit the homeless. Or just give $10 million to your favorite charity — your own personal season of sharing.

Just don’t run for public office. Don’t think voters will act like employees at your former company. Don’t believe the medium is the message.

Yet do you ever listen? For more than 20 years we’ve been offering sage advice to candidates — for free — and yet they still line up like turkeys on an open range.

Do you think we named Al “Checkbook” Checci for a reason?

I guess you can’t buy smarts on eBay even if you run it. The company’s former CEO, Meg Whitman, spent a few dimes shy of $142 million of her personal fortune to get stomped by Democratic name-brand Jerry Brown in the race for California governor. Whitman outspent Brown 6-to-1 and got no return on her investment — that is if you don’t count the happy faces on the scores of consultants who enjoyed the wildest spending spree ever experienced by someone who wasn’t running for office in all 50 states.

Whitman led the pack in spending, but she hardly separated herself from it. According to a recent report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Whitman was one of 10 candidates for office nationally who primarily self-funded their own campaigns. Eight of them lost, by mostly wide margins.

As we’ve tried to tell you over the years, this is not a trend. It’s a studied fact. Super-wealthy candidates who fund their own campaigns for office lose about 90 percent of the time. If Whitman had offered to give California about $50 million as a goodwill gesture, she might have had a better chance.

According to the institute’s report, of the 10 races nationally in which the candidates gave more than 50 percent of their fundraising total to themselves, only Rick Scott in Florida and Rick Snyder in Michigan won their campaigns for governor, and Scott’s victory was decidedly close.

Scott spent $60 million of his own money on the campaign and the rest of the candidates wrote checks to themselves between $5 million and $25 million. As you can see, Whitman was in uncharted territory, spending more than any candidate in history in a nonpresidential race. She even made the $109 million spent by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to win re-election seem puny.

“The outcome of the races involving the top 10 self-funded candidates found that the historic pattern of self-funded candidates holds,” according to the Institute’s report. “Simply put, financing one’s own campaign may actually create an obstacle to success rather than a leg up.”

In California, Steve Poizner wasted nearly $25 million in his failed bid for governor. Facebook executive Chris Kelly spent more than $12 million in his race for attorney general, and he didn’t make it past the primary.

Spending merrily on oneself can be a problem. Whitman tried to run with a message that Sacramento needs to tighten its belt and lose about 40,000 employees. Yet somehow her mantra of fiscal responsibility got lost in the incessant television ads, for which she spent $109 million.

It appears there’s not enough money anywhere to transform a political novice into a good candidate. The money watchdog institute found that in the past decade, only 11 percent of some 6,000 candidates who contributed more than half of their campaign spending from their own pockets actually won. The odds are better in Vegas.

Sure, there are a few winners that seem to keep the fidgety millionaires coming, but mostly there are cautionary tales like Checci’s $40 million for his run for governor and Michael Huffington’s $30 million for his attempt at a California senate seat.

Just remember that some of the best things in life — advice, affection, The San Francisco Examiner — are still free.

E-mail Ken Garcia at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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