In their first debate, the three Democratic candidates for governor clashed sharply Monday night on a range of issues, with the most pointed exchanges between Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Treasurer Kathleen Brown.
From the outset, Garamendi vigorously attacked Brown, the front-runner in the polls in the June 7 primary. During his opening comments, he turned to face her and questioned her sharply on several points, including her acceptance of campaign contributions from municipal finance houses that do business with the state treasurer.
On that matter, and on other issues throughout the hourlong session broadcast only in the Sacramento area, Garamendi likened Brown's responses to a current television ad run by the Hertz auto rental firm. When a character with a problem car is asked if he rented from Hertz, he despondently replies: "Not exactly."
Late in the debate, when Brown said she had the toughest ethics rules in the history of the treasurer's office, Garamendi retorted: "There you go again. It's, 'Not exactly.' "
Throughout most of the hour, Brown adopted an above-the-fray front-runner's stance: ignoring Garamendi and aiming her campaign ammunition at Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
But finally, after Garamendi raised the campaign ethics issues again, Brown shot back: "John, all three of your charges are false. You do not know what you are talking about."
State records supported Garamendi's contention, however, that Brown did receive large amounts of contributions from New York bond houses until last June, when she declared that she would no longer accept such funds.
It was the third candidate, state Sen. Tom Hayden of Santa Monica, who offered the sharpest rebuttal to Garamendi by accusing him of accepting, as insurance commissioner, campaign contributions from outside law firms that had been hired to do business for Garamendi's office. Garamendi has refused to accept contributions from insurance companies, but has taken money from the law firms, state reports indicate.
Campaign reform is the cornerstone of Hayden's campaign and he pushed that issue during the debate, but he also made a number of points that set him apart from Brown and Garamendi.
For instance, on the "three strikes, you're out" law recently approved by the Legislature and contained in an initiative on the June ballot, Hayden said, "I think 'three strikes' is fiscal madness." He said the 25-years-to-life terms should be meted out only to violent felons, not someone who, for example, is caught forging a check as a third offense.
Garamendi generally agreed, adding that the state could save money and open prison space by putting nonviolent felons in boot camps. Brown also supports boot camps, but did not take advantage of the opportunity to push her case Monday night.
Brown said she supports the current law and the proposed initiative as needed "to send a message that there are consequences that flow from individual actions in society."
Repeatedly brushing aside criticisms, Brown never directly answered the questions that Garamendi put to her at the opening of the debate. But she came prepared with some of her own charges, citing state auditor reports of mismanagement in the insurance commissioner's office during Garamendi's 3 1/2 years on the job. Garamendi replied that all the disparities had been corrected.
In an unprecedented debate-a-day lineup, the three will meet again in San Francisco this evening under the sponsorship of the Commonwealth Club. The 90-minute session beginning at 6 p.m. will be carried live on public television station KCET Channel 28 in the Los Angeles area.
The third, and probably final, session will be on radio in Los Angeles on Wednesday, on the Michael Jackson talk show on station KABC.
Garamendi's aggressiveness Monday night was no surprise. Trailing Brown by as much as 20 points in recent public opinion polls, he needs to bring some drama to the race to focus attention on him and to raise doubts in Democratic voters' minds about Brown.
Hayden is regarded as the outsider, with relatively little support in the polls and little chance of winning. He noted at the outset that his candidacy has been described in many ways this year.
In general, the candidates came across much as they have campaigned throughout the spring: Brown cool, often talking in broad terms, sometimes technically phrased, focusing on Wilson as if her victory June 7 is taken for granted.
Garamendi presented himself as a populist and talked about how he had worked other people's jobs in each of the 58 counties since early January. He said that reform of health, welfare and prison programs in California is fundamental to bringing the state budget under control.
Hayden, presumably the one with the least to lose, seemed to enjoy the attention he got by being treated as an equal at the debate table.
During the debate, the questions covered all the major topics that the candidates have been talking about: the death penalty, water development, health care, taxes, illegal immigration, prisons and education funding.
In a clash over the death penalty, Brown reiterated her position that it is the law of California and as governor, she would enforce the law. What she did not say is that she is personally opposed to capital punishment, as were her father and brother, both former California governors.
She said the death penalty issue had been used "as a political smoke screen to avoid failed records on public safety," presumably a shot at Wilson.
Hayden said he is ambivalent on the issue, saying he might support executions if a crime were committed against his wife or daughter. But he said the better course is to put violent criminals in prison for life.
Garamendi, however, said, "I strongly support the death penalty and I will enforce it and it will be used. . . . I have no ambivalence on this." Again, he used the Hertz ad analogy on Brown: "So what is your position exactly on this? Mine is clear."
Each candidate met with reporters afterward.
Brown, saying she was pleased with the debate, called Garamendi's suggestion early in the debate that her office was the subject of a possible Securities Exchange Commission investigation of her office's conduct "a lie, a fabrication from a desperate candidate."
Garamendi said he merely was asking about a possible probe and not arguing that one is being conducted. Garamendi added that in general he was trying to pin Brown down to specifics on issues and "there's not a straight answer. She wants to be on both sides of these very important issues."
Hayden said he welcomed Brown's professed support for his campaign reform proposals, including limits on the size of campaign contributions and creation of a public financing system.
Excerpts From Debate
Following are excerpts from Monday night's debate in Sacramento among the three Democratic candidates for governor.
State Treasurer Kathleen Brown: "I'm running because I am angry. I'm angry at the decline of California and everything that made the California dream possible. . . . I am angry that under Pete Wilson, California's dream has been in decline."
State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi: "I strongly support the death penalty and I will enforce it. It will be used when I'm governor of the state of California. Unlike my opponents here, I have no ambivalence about this. Kathleen, you've said many times that you do not believe in the death penalty although you would enforce it. It very, very much reminds me of that new Hertz ad . . . the one with the guy standing out there in the rain and the guy's boss says, 'You got Hertz didn't you?' and the guy says, 'Not exactly.' Well, what is your position exactly on this?"
State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica): "We're in Sacramento, which somebody awhile ago must have thought was a holy place because they made it the city of sacrament. Yet in the past four or five years, 12 people have gone to jail from the Legislature for political corruption. That is because the institution itself breeds too much temptation because the dependence on special interests and their contributions is the key to success around here."
After a Hayden statement about how he would call together legislative leaders to move forward with campaign finance reform:
Brown: "Well, Tom I agree with you about (the need to change the contribution system). You can't run for office in this state and not be wanting to change the system. So, when I'm elected governor, I want to invite you over and we'll have that cup of coffee and I'll support those efforts to reform campaign finance."
Garamendi: "Kathleen, I'm really surprised. After taking $1 million from the people you've done business with, flaunting the very issue that you just talked about, now you're going to have reform? Come on, Kathleen, give me a break."
On the state's budget crisis and whether a tax on wealthy Californians should be extended:
Hayden: "There's a time bomb in the budget where these tax brackets for the very wealthy are due to expire and if they expire . . . it means that a person making over $200,000 a year will pay the same tax as somebody making $33,000 a year. I think that's unfair."
Brown: "First of all, Pete Wilson has been a failed governor as it relates to bringing this budget into balance each and every year. He's given us cooked books. He's given us IOUs. He's given us mountains of red ink."
Garamendi: "If you're going to build a budget that's going to count . . . what you have to do is to get into the heart of the budget and understand what's driving the cost. Health care . . . welfare . . . and prisons are driving the cost. If you don't reform and change those issues, you're not going to be able to deal with the budget problems."
Two More Debates Planned
There are two more scheduled debates among the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. Unlike Monday's debate, which was broadcast only in Sacramento, the others can be heard in Southern California.
Tonight's debate will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Francisco. It will be carried live in Los Angeles on KCET-TV Channel 28 and Century Cable Channel 42, and in San Diego on KNSD-TV Channel 39. KCET-TV will repeat its broadcast at 11 p.m. tonight. The debate also can be heard live on radio on KCRW-FM (89.9) in Los Angeles.
Wednesday's debate, which will be moderated by talk radio host Michael Jackson, will be broadcast live in Los Angeles on KABC-AM (790) from 1 to 3 p.m. C-SPAN, the cable channel devoted to public affairs, will tape the debate for later broadcast.