Whitman: Reward state workers for losing weight?

Reporters covering Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s visit to Cisco Systems in San Jose this morning only wanted to know what she knew and when she knew it about her former housekeeper who turned out to be an illegal immigrant.

But there was something Whitman said during her chat with Cisco CEO John Chambers and several hundred employees that might’ve made a headline on any other day: State workers might want to start watching their weight if she’s elected.

A Cisco employee teleconferenced into the event from Pleasanton asked the candidate about how to increase access to and affordability of health care. Whitman replied by saying there are examples to follow in corporate America; as an example she cited Pleasanton-based Safeway, which provided financial incentives for workers to control their blood pressure, lose weight and not smoke. The company’s health care costs have remained flat as a result, she said.

“Maybe we can start with state employees,” she said, drawing a chuckle from the audience which seemed to make her realize just what she was proposing. “I’ve just made news, which is something you really don’t want to do.”

More of Whitman’s Cisco appearance, after the jump…

Most of Whitman’s 15-plus-minute speech and subsequent Q&A covered the same ground we’ve seen in earlier campaign stops: a focus on creating jobs through targeted tax cuts, controlling government spending through new technology and cuts to pensions and welfare, and redirecting education funding from bureaucracy to classrooms.

Chambers, who noted he and Whitman have been friends for about 15 years, fawned over the candidate a bit, noting her ability to balance a successful business career with her family life and so on.

He did, however, ask a few questions with a bit more bite – asking, for example, how she would accomplish making government work without having any prior government experience. “If the career politicians were doing such a great job, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in,” she replied.

He also noted that one of his earliest interactions with Whitman had been as the two of them accompanied then-President Bill Clinton – whom he called the “smartest political leader I’ve ever met” – and Vice President Al Gore to discuss U.S. leadership in the information age. Given Whitman’s controversial, many-say-misleading ad featuring Bill Clinton, and Clinton’s firm endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, that seemed an interesting thing to say.

“He (Clinton) understood how to bring us together,” Chambers said, asking her how she plans to be a similar, unifying force in Sacramento.

Whitman took that to mean “how will you get things done?” and offered her previous campaign promises to build an administration team with appointments equally from the civil service, other states and the private sector; to veto any bill that doesn’t focus on jobs, government reform and education; and to put more responsibility on the Legislature so that they can take credit for fixing things.

Cisco spokesman John Earnhardt said both major-party candidates for governor and U.S. Senator have been invited to come address the company’s workers; Whitman was the first to come, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. – whom Chambers also supports – will be there Oct. 22. Brown and Republican senatorial nominee Carly Fiorina have not yet responded.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.