Morgen on May 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm
In less than 3 weeks Republicans in California will choose either Steve Poizner or Meg Whitman as our candidate for Governor. As anyone residing in California knows, it has been a hotly contested race with dueling TV ads airing around the clock which have become almost comical in their accusations. But with unemployment approaching 13%, homes still foreclosing in record numbers, and the budget situation in Sacramento an ongoing disaster, these are serious times and this is a critical decision for the future of California.
Years and years of rampant liberal spending have brought our great state to the brink, and strong conservative leadership and a concerted program of fiscal discipline will be necessary to turn things around. Which is why after much consideration I have decided I will be voting for Steve Poizner. There are just too many important areas where Whitman’s conservative rhetoric is not backed up by her actions prior to entering politics. Starting with the fact that until 2002 she had never even registered to vote in California. But the most telling issue for me is one that has been mostly under the radar, but which calls into serious doubt not only Whitman’s credentials as a conservative, but also her judgement. The question is this: would a principled conservative ever support the power of the government to confiscate private property for their own personal benefit, or for the benefit of elitist, special interests?
One of the most fundamental principles of modern conservatism (and classical liberalism) is the inherent right of all individuals to own and reap the benefits of private property. Thus for conservatives one of the most critical functions of (limited) government is the vigorous protection of individual property rights. Conversely, the epitome of tyranny is the unchecked use of state power to confiscate private property for the benefit of powerful interests working within or outside the government. For conservatives this is distinct from the doctrine of eminent domain established by the Fifth Amendment, the purpose of which was to limit the power of the federal government in this regard:
“No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
For most of our history “public use” was understood to mean just that. Public utilities, railroads, highways, etc. Regrettably, beginning in the middle of the last century the courts began to uphold an increasingly expansionist interpretation of state power under eminent domain. Culminating in the Supreme Court’s Kilo decision in 2005, which affirmed the power of the state to expropriate property from one private party and transfer it directly to another. This decision set off a firestorm of controversy, even outside of conservative and libertarian circles, and ultimately resulted in a number of states enacting legislation which restricted the use of eminent domain in this manner.
As a candidate Meg Whitman has expressed her belief in the importance of individual property rights, and seemingly agrees with those who oppose the expansion of the state’s eminent domain powers, as evidenced by an interview she granted with the Flash Report last October:
“My view is that it should be very hard for the government, or a city, or a county to take people’s property rights. Property rights is a core part of, I think, why people live in America. Think about the history of owning property in the United States. It’s the American dream. There may be a small number of occasions where it makes sense for the government – whether it’s public safety, whether it’s hospitals, whether there’s something that the county or the city absolutely needs where there is no other alternative, but I think it should be an alternative of last resort.”
An alternative of last resort, says candidate Meg Whitman. Remember this, because just 3 short years ago as a private citizen Meg Whitman was confronted with a decision on this very issue, and for reasons which only she could explain decided to side with elitist special interests seeking to use the eminent domain power of the state for their own ends.
The place was Telluride, Colorado, a historic mining town converted into a part-time, mountain playground for wealthy, out-of-state celebrities, corporate executives, and political elites. You know the type, the more environmentally pretentious the better, with notable examples including Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise, and Richard Holbrooke. On the fringe of this elite group was Meg Whitman, who apparently owned a condo in Telluride for years, but joined the exclusive residents club when she paid $20 million for a 150 acre former dude ranch in 2006.
Fittingly this story also involves a successful, conservative California businessman. Neal Blue is the CEO and majority owner of General Atomics in San Diego, the company which makes the Predator and other drone aircraft used for military and civilian purposes. In 1983, Blue acquired an 880 acre parcel of land in the valley leading up to the town of Telluride. A plot of land twice the size of Telluride and which notably was outside its legal boundaries.
This prompted a 20 year running battle between the local community, which was generally opposed to any development in the valley, and the company which Blue had incorporated to develop the property. The confrontation culminated in a decision by the town in 2002 to use its power of eminent domain to condemn and confiscate 570 acres of Blue’s property for use as an open space preserve. A series of legal actions ensued, including passage by the Colorado state legislature of a law banning local communities from using eminent domain to seize land outside of their boundaries for open space use. However, a Colorado District court ruled this law unconstitutional in 2005 allowing the condemnation effort to proceed. (This decision was later upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2008.)
The remaining dispute was over the valuation of the property, with the community appraising it at $26 million, while Blue’s development company had it appraised at $51 million.
Prior to final resolution, an important development occurred in early 2006 between town officials and the development company. A deal was struck whereby 91% of the property in dispute would have been deeded to the community as open space preserve at no cost to the community, with the remaining 9% dedicated to development of a small number of luxury home sites and additional affordable housing (which the town was in dire need of).
With the valuation dispute headed for a jury trial, and the town having financial resources available only for the lower end of the valuation range, the mayor and other town officials recommended approval of the deal. However, the settlement was rejected by the community in a subsequent ballot measure, with preservation proponents enlisting the aid of town celebrities to urge citizens to reject the deal (source).
In February 2007 a Colorado jury valued the 570 acre valley floor property at $50 million, a disappointing setback for town preservationists. The town would have to raise an additional $26 million from private interests within about 90 days, or the opportunity to acquire the property would likely be lost forever.
This is where Meg Whitman publicly re-enters the picture. Not only did she personally donate $1.15 million to the condemnation fund, but raising $26 million in 90 days is no small undertaking, even for a town with as many wealthy inhabitants as Telluride. The effort would require an experienced, engaging leader with personal clout and a network of wealthy connections. Based on multiple reports, it appears this leader was Meg Whitman.
“Among the heavy-hitters behind the the fundraising effort are Meg Whitman”… (The Denver Post – May 3, 2007)
“In the leadership category, she really helped us there”, said Hillary White, the leader of the private foundation raising the funds, upon successful completion of the fundraising effort. (source: Telluride Watch – May 9, 2007)
Whitman also participated in the official town press conference celebrating the effort, calling it “an incredible occasion”, a “historic day for Telluride…and the nation” and saying she was “absolutely delighted with the outcome”. (Video here.)
Open space preservation is a hotly contested issue in many communities, but whatever you think of the outcome that Whitman was “absolutely delighted” over, the simple fact of the matter is this. The town of Telluride, prompted largely by environmental extremists, with financial support from wealthy elitists who weren’t even permanent residents, confiscated Neil Blue’s property against his will. This action was all the more egregious given that Blue was ultimately willing to strike a deal which would have ceded 91% (!) of the property to the community as open space.
Nowhere is Whitman on record stating her support for this compromise. And rather than taking a position based on conservative values, and common sense, Whitman lent her time, money, and talent to the effort necessary to consummate the seizure of Neil Blue’s property.
This certainly was not an “alternative of last resort”, given the very reasonable compromise which was on the table, and the fact that if the fundraising effort had failed and the land reverted back to Blue, the community would still be in a position to approve any future development plans.
Whitman could have even remained neutral, but instead she made a conscious decision to lend her leadership skills, and align herself with the elitist interests behind this effort.
These are not the actions of a principled conservative, nor are they even the actions of a reasonable conservationist. Colorado has millions of acres of open space, in state and national parks and other open space preserves across the state. The only thing truly significant about Neil Blue’s valley floor property was that it adjoined the town of Telluride. It was certainly reasonable for the community to seek to provide input on any development, and even to limit development in order to preserve the beauty of the natural surroundings.
But this was clearly not the ultimate desire of the people behind this effort. They wanted control, and they wanted it all.
Whitman’s recent rhetoric on this issue might be right in line with what conservatives want to hear, but unfortunately her words are belied by her actions. Her participation in this effort is inexcusable, and given the decisions facing California which will weigh environmental interests against economic development and property rights, it does not bode well for her judgment on these issues.
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