Sep 102010
Meg Whitman at eBay Live 2005-01-13 (2)
Image via Wikipedia

If you live in California and watch television at all, you’ve likely seen Meg Whitman’s current campaign ad. The 33 second video is entitled, “The Facts: Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.” In this day and age of so much hyperbole and distortion, a political candidate putting together an ad based on facts would be something truly rare. So, does Meg Whitman deserve some accolades? The answer really depends on her “facts?”

Whitman’s “Fact” number one: “Brown promised to improve schools, but the dropout rate increased 50% and the State had to take over the schools.”

The numbers behind this “fact” aren’t given, but according to the California Department of Education’s Ed-Data website, the number of dropouts in Oakland Unified School District for the year Brown took office (98-99) was 846. During his last full year as mayor (05-06) the number had climbed by 11% to 941. But the following year (06-07), one in which Brown left office halfway through, dropouts did shoot up to 1384 — a whopping 64% jump. That’s a staggering leap for a single year. Well . . . as it turns out, it was also the first year that districts throughout the State were required to use Statewide Student Identifiers (SSID) for their reports. The Ed-Data site states that prior to 2007, dropout numbers were mere estimates, and that “trend data is not meaningful.”

Could Whitman’s campaign have just overlooked the warning about dropout data? That’s possible, but when you also consider that the Academic Performance Index (API) scores for the district climbed every year from inception through the end of Brown’s term: 2003: 596; 2004: 605; 2005: 634; 2006: 653; 2007: 658, you might conclude that the distortion is intentional. If you also evaluate the second part of Whitman’s claim, taking into consideration that the State take-over was in response to the $82 million debt incurred by the independent government body that presided over the district, completely outside of Brown’s control, you would likely remove all doubt.

Whitman’s “Fact” number two: “The city controller found employees paid for 22,000 hours they never worked.”

This time, at least the source of the figure is known. It comes from a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Larae Brown, the former Oakland city controller, in 2008. There is a trial pending. But according to City Auditor Courtney Ruby, an independent audit performed in 2007 showed no such finding. Likewise, officials in the city administrator’s office said, “We have no data to support that claim.”

Obviously, in the Whitman world an unsubstantiated accusation foisted by a former employee with a grudge sufficiently constitutes a “fact.” This is actually valuable information for anyone interested in evaluating the facts regarding Meg Whitman’s character.

Whitman’s “Fact” number three: “Brown promised to cut crime, but murders doubled making Oakland the fourth most dangerous city in America.”

Oddly enough, this is Whitman’s most veracious claim — and it’s a half-truth. The number of murders did escalate during Brown’s tenure, from 72 in 1998 to 145 in 2006. But the murder rate is only one factor to be considered in determining the relative danger or safety associated with a city. The rest of the story, the part Meg Whitman doesn’t want to mention about Oakland, is that overall crime dropped by 13% while Brown was in office. There were nearly 5,000 fewer crimes reported in 2006 than in 1998, and amongst those that dropped were several other of the violent variety, like rape and assault.

So, what about those accolades? The Whitman ad isn’t completely devoid of factual data, but to present it as an assemblage of facts is a distortion of the highest degree. The ad is a patent perversion of the truth that mostly twists questionable “facts” into outrageously false assertions. In the end, the only fact about Whitman’s ad that rings true is that it can safely be considered 99% fact-free.

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