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FILE PHOTO -- An independent Democratic group on Wednesday called on Meg Whitman, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate and ex-CEO of eBay, to release her tax returns, saying the public has the right to know whether she paid her "fair share" in taxes. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News)

SACRAMENTO — An independent Democratic group on Wednesday called on Meg Whitman, the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate and ex-CEO of eBay, to release her tax returns, saying the public has the right to know whether she paid her "fair share" in taxes.

The group, Level the Playing Field 2010, released its second radio ad campaign in two days, this one suggesting that she's hiding something by refusing to release her tax returns.

"Why won't Meg Whitman explain the twelve million dollars a year she claimed in cash and bonuses when she was in charge of eBay?" a woman's voice says on the 60-second spot, which will cost the campaign about $250,000 a month to run statewide for the remainder of the campaign season.

The Whitman campaign said it would comply with California's financial disclosure requirements when Whitman files her candidacy papers on March 12.

"Why won't Jerry Brown step out from behind his platoon of attack-style consultants, start campaigning, and explain why his backers are trying to demonize her incredible success in the private sector? It's cowardice," said Tucker Bounds, Whitman's deputy campaign manager.

The Democratic group, led by veteran political strategists and backed by pledges of millions from traditional allies of Democrats, struck a populist chord in assailing Whitman for a second straight day as it officially unveiled its campaign.


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Chris Lehane, known as the "master of disaster," from past political battles with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, made it clear that exposing Whitman's history as a "corporate titan" will be the centerpiece to their effort — which is operated independent of the campaign that presumably will be run by Jerry Brown, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon.

The key, Lehane said, was to start creating a "narrative" early to prevent Whitman from solidifying images she's projecting with television ads that have been running unanswered for weeks. Whitman, a billionaire, has already spent $19 million, has poured in $39 million of her own personal fortune into her campaign, and has vowed to spend $150 million or more to win the primary and general election.

Meanwhile, her Republican opponent, Steve Poizner, trailing badly in polls, has yet to make use of the $19 million of personal cash that he's contributed to his own campaign. Whitman will be portrayed as "someone connected to Wall Street," a particular epithet in a time of corporate excess, Lehane said.

"American people and the people of California are very suspect of corporate America because they think the system is rigged because of how certain titans of corporate America have conducted themselves and acted," Lehane said. "Now she's trying to run an election where she's purposely not engaged in the Democratic process, purposely trying to rig the electoral system. So, in some ways, she's taken some of the corporate practices that were so bad for the public and the country and applying it to the campaign."

There is no law requiring candidates to release tax returns, though public officials must release more general statements of economic interest. But it has been common that gubernatorial candidates release at least partial tax returns. In 2003, during the recall election, Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger released two years of his tax returns; in 2006, Democratic candidate Phil Angelides released the previous seven years of his tax returns, while Steve Westly released even more extensive records.

Lehane said Whitman should be obligated to show taxes she's paid on servants at her Atherton mansion, on her personal use of private jets, whether she has "parked" income in tax-free offshore accounts.

The Whitman campaign tied the group directly to Brown and attacked the undeclared candidate in a prepared statement: "Predictably, Team Brown launches its campaign by trying to meddle in a Republican primary using preposterous and ridiculous accusations. This ad only serves as a contrast that highlights Jerry Brown's biggest liability: he's a job killer."

Among the independent group's top operatives are political players who have been close to Brown, including senior strategist Ace Smith, who ran Brown's campaign for attorney general in 2006. The finance director for the group, Michelle Maravich, raised money for Brown's 2006 campaign; Mike Rice, who will direct the opposition research team, was Brown's sister Kathleen Brown's research director in her 1994 campaign for governor.

But Deborah Burger, co-president of the nurses association, dismissed the notion that the campaign is a shadow organization of Brown's.

"When you have an independent expenditure, you actually control the message," she said. "When you give money to the politician, he chooses what the message is, when it's being played, how it's being heard and who it's targeted to.

"We have different interests than even Jerry Brown," she continued. "We have an obligation to communicate to our members in a way that Jerry Brown may not necessarily endorse."

The group's founding members include the California Nurses Association, the California Faculty Association and the Painters District Council 36, which contributed seed money of about $1 million.

Supporters have pledged to contribute in excess of $20 million to the Level the Playing Field campaign, said Sean Clegg, the campaign manager and senior political adviser to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"Meg Whitman has put her thumb on the scale to the tune of what we think will be $200 million," Clegg said. "We didn't write the rules but we're going to play by the current campaign finance rules to the maximum extent possible."

Meanwhile, California Republicans began a "Where's Jerry Watch," questioning whether Brown has the desire to run.

"Democrats are spending millions in special-interest money trying to motivate a guy who seemingly doesn't have the energy or the interest to walk down the hall and fill out a simple piece of paper," said Mark Standriff, communications director for the state GOP. "What they don't understand is that it's impossible to 'level the playing field' when your star player would rather sit on the sidelines."

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.