Five candidates for governor in the recall election differed Wednesday over taxes, the death penalty and campaign spending in a spirited debate that offered voters a widely varied set of solutions to the most contentious issues facing California.
The forum, the first debate of the campaign, began with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis appearing separately from the candidates seeking to replace him. Davis vigorously condemned the effort to drive him from office, alternately sounding notes of frustration and contrition.
If given the chance, Davis said, he would do a better job of reaching out to Californians in the last three years of his term by holding town hall meetings across the state.
"The biggest thing I would change is to stay connected to the people of this state," he said.
One major candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner, skipped the event. His absence was noted less than 30 seconds into the session when Dennis Richmond of KTVU-TV, the moderator, introduced the participants and said the actor had decided "he would not speak directly to the voters of California at this time."
For the most part, however, the candidates ignored their absentee opponent, who sought his own platform earlier in the day with a speech at Cal State Long Beach, where he was hit with an egg. Instead, they focused on answering the more than 20 questions put to them, staking out their partisan differences and striking broad campaign themes from the start.
For several of the candidates, the debate, which was broadcast statewide, provided a measure of public attention that their campaigns would otherwise have struggled to achieve.
For voters, the presence of a wide range of candidates — from Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock on the right to Arianna Huffington, the commentator, and Peter Camejo of the Green Party on the left — provided views often missing from debates that include only two major party candidates.
McClintock, for instance, advocated dismantling the state's regulation of coastal development, while Camejo called for abandoning the state's three-strikes sentencing law and Huffington advocated scrapping plans to build a new state prison in Delano.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only major Democrat among the candidates to replace Davis, emphasized the role government must play in upholding the "social contract" with its citizens and regulating business. Bustamante repeated a line he has used often, that he is not running against Davis but against the other candidates on the second part of the recall ballot. But he did not take the opportunity to stress his opposition to the recall, saying only that Davis would make his own arguments.
Asked how he would distinguish himself from Davis, Bustamante cited a point in the electricity crisis of 2001 when the state's major utilities said they would turn off the lights if Sacramento would not approve rate increases. "I think I'd have called their bluff," he said.
Asked after the debate about Bustamante's comment, Davis said: "Let me tell you why I didn't — because we have about 500,000 people in this state that are hooked up to some life-saving machine at home — an iron lung, a dialysis machine — and we don't have their addresses. So if you call their bluff and the lights go out you're going to find some dead people on your hands.
"I'm not going to play Russian roulette with the people of this state," he said.
Bustamante was thrown on the defensive at one point when he was asked about pledges by Indian tribes that operate casinos in the state to contribute more than $2 million to his campaign.
He stressed his long relationship with the tribes, noting that he had visited their reservations when they had no money, and added that there was little he could do as governor to affect their operations. Most regulations on Indian gambling are set by the federal government and voter-approved initiatives, he said.
Besides, Bustamante said, the tribal donations were simply "leveling the playing field" against his more affluent opponents. "I don't have that kind of wealth," he said.
Huffington sharply disagreed.
The contributions were "nothing but legalized bribery," she said.
"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante replied, drawing laughter from the audience.
McClintock also criticized Bustamante, accusing him of exploiting a loophole in the state's campaign finance law.
Bustamante is raising contributions though a campaign committee that is exempt from current restrictions on donations because it was set up during a previous election cycle. McClintock said he had a similar committee but chose not to raise money in the same way. Even if Bustamante's practice is legal, he said, "it's certainly on the shady side of the law."
One of the most illuminating parts of the debate was a rapid-fire session in which candidates were limited to 15-second responses on a wide variety of topics, including gay rights, medical marijuana and gun control.
On gay rights, all but McClintock said they would sign legislation giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. Peter V. Ueberroth, Republican businessman and former Major League Baseball commissioner, added the qualifier that he opposed gay marriage.
All five agreed on allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. "When people are suffering," said Ueberroth, "you give them everything you possibly can do to take away that suffering."
The forum began with Davis alone on stage for 25 minutes, fielding questions from a panel of reporters and a handful of voters invited by the debate organizers.
Speaking in an even, measured tone, the governor mixed contrition with self-defense, justifying his performance on everything from the energy crisis to the state budget that cut programs and relied on increased car taxes and expanded borrowing to achieve balance.
"I don't want anyone's taxes to go up," Davis said at one point. "I know taxes are a pain in the neck. Nobody wants to pay. Unfortunately, if we're going to keep people employed, be they nurses, teachers, sanitation workers, postal workers, paramedics, police and fire, we have to pay the salary to keep them on the job."
Things would have been worse, Davis said repeatedly, if Republicans in Sacramento had their way. GOP lawmakers "would rather shoot their mother than raise any taxes," he said, hastening to add that he was speaking figuratively.
He described the recall as the brainchild of Republicans "who were upset they couldn't win last November's election," and likened the attempt to remove him from office to the impeachment of former President Clinton and the halting of the Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential race.
But, he said, although it was Republicans who "got the ball rolling" on the recall, "they did tap into some genuine anger that I recognize."
He admitted he erred as governor, particularly in the energy crisis that led to blackouts and a spike in power bills during his first term. "I think I was too slow to act in the energy crisis," he said.
He then offered a defense of his actions, saying he had been reluctant to act because he did not want to approve higher power rates.
"I hesitated and hesitated, because I didn't want to do that," he said.
Several Californians took turns firing questions at Davis after the journalists were done.
John Popescu, an unemployed high-tech engineer, asked Davis how he would address the issue of businesses moving jobs overseas.
Davis said he had tried to help people like Popescu by increasing unemployment benefits for jobless workers and had invested "a lot of money" in San Francisco Bay Area biotechnology projects.
He also pledged to sign two bills that would penalize companies that incorporate in Bermuda and the Caribbean by taxing them as California businesses and denying them government contracts.
Pamela McCoy, who described herself as a single, working mother, framed the dilemma Davis and state lawmakers face: voters who want the state to provide good roads, good public schools and other services but don't want to pay higher taxes.
"How do you plan to fix the budget problem without increasing my taxes, tripling my car registration and removing Proposition 13 — and leaving a little bit more in my pocket to support my family?" she asked.
Davis chuckled, declared the question a good one and conceded, "I'm not sure I can answer it to your satisfaction."
After Davis left the stage, the candidates to replace him filed in and took their seats in a set of director's chairs, arranged in a semicircle facing an audience of 250 invited guests. The candidates who were asked to participate in the debate qualified by receiving at least 4% support in either the most recent Field Poll or the last statewide election.
Partisan lines were drawn from the start, with the first question directed to McClintock. Asked about his conservative stand on social issues — and, more specifically, whether he was too conservative for Californians — the state senator pointed to his record of fiscal austerity and said his themes were resonating at this time of fiscal crisis. He, alone among the major candidates, has vowed not to raise taxes under any circumstances, he said.
Huffington chided McClintock for speaking of fiscal prudence "while ignoring" the federal budget deficit under the Bush administration.
When his turn came, Bustamante said McClintock's positions illustrated the deep difference between Democrats and Republicans on issues such as abortion and offshore oil drilling.
Camejo, in turn, suggested that both major political parties were "dysfunctional."
Ueberroth sounded his main campaign theme: creating a business-friendly environment that would create jobs and, in turn, help the state close its yawning budget gap. But the man who became a household name with his vigorous stewardship of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics seemed lackluster and ill-at-ease, saying toward the end of the forum that he is not good on television.
For all the candidates, there was little time for set speeches as they were grilled on a succession of issues, one after another in often rapid-fire succession.
On taxes, Huffington, Camejo and Bustamante all called for modifying Proposition 13, which caps increases in property taxes.
Bustamante said he would seek to boost rates on commercial property. Huffington said she would appoint a commission to study ways to overhaul the 25-year-old measure while protecting elderly homeowners and people on fixed incomes.
McClintock and Ueberroth both said they would not touch Proposition 13, with Ueberroth vowing to "protect that with every ounce I've got."
The two Republicans opposed a proposed ballot initiative to allow the state budget to be passed with 55% approval in the Legislature, instead of the current two-thirds requirement. The other three candidates said they supported it.
All of the contestants except for McClintock expressed opposition to Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to restrict state services to illegal immigrants but was mostly struck down by courts.
McClintock said he supported the measure and would try to revive it. Gov. Davis had failed to defend the initiative against a court challenge, he said. If elected, "I intend to see it gets that fair day in court," he said.
McClintock also differed with the rest of those on the stage by condemning the Coastal Commission, which regulates development near the shore. He said he would prefer giving control over California's coastline to "local communities rather than a bureaucratic organ in state government filled with political appointees."
Bustamante, Ueberroth and McClintock all expressed support for the death penalty and agreed there was no need for further controls on gun ownership, although Bustamante said he would seek ways to improve enforcement of existing laws. Huffington and Camejo disagreed on both counts, opposing the death penalty and supporting more gun controls.
Bustamante said he supported giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, a bill the Legislature approved a few hours before the debate. He cited his own background as the grandchild of Mexican immigrants. Peering over a pair of half-moon glasses, he said, "I came from those fields in the Central Valley. I've picked cotton. I've picked peaches."
If people need a car to visit the doctor, or care for their children or aging relatives, they should have a license allowing them to drive legally, Bustamante said.
Ueberroth agreed that he would sign the measure, as did Camejo and Huffington.
McClintock disagreed, calling the proposal — which Davis has said he would sign — "a very dangerous measure."
The forum was sponsored by the Contra Costa Times, KTVU-TV and KQED public TV and radio. It was held at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in the East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek.
Times staff writers Gregg Jones and Lee Romney contributed to this report.