In their sharpest confrontation yet, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Kathleen Brown and John Garamendi clashed bitterly in a debate Tuesday night while underdog state Sen. Tom Hayden sought to bring them together in a broad-based effort for government reform.
Throughout the 90-minute forum--the only one to be televised in most of the state before the June 7 primary--Brown and Garamendi exchanged acrimonious charges about each other's alleged misconduct in statewide office.
But Brown and Garamendi also were agreeing more with the positions staked out by Hayden, the anti-war radical turned legislator who entered the race to make a statement but now says he is in it to win. Most notably, Brown endorsed Hayden's call for raising taxes by closing what he says are loopholes that benefit big business and the wealthy.
The debate was the second of three being held this week. The final match is scheduled for today in Los Angeles on the Michael Jackson radio show.
All three candidates seemed to have benefited Tuesday night from what amounted to a dress rehearsal the night before in Sacramento. Their messages refined, the candidates dropped tactics that had bombed and added new flourishes.
State Treasurer Brown, who is leading Garamendi and Hayden in every public opinion poll, continued to showcase her criticisms of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. But she engaged in more direct exchanges with Garamendi than she had before.
Garamendi, the state insurance commissioner, abandoned the line borrowed from a car rental ad--"Not exactly"--that he had used to underscore his point that Brown waffles on important issues. But he added new weapons to his arsenal of charges against Brown.
Hayden, meanwhile, seemed to be playing the role of mediator as he returned time and again to his theme that virtually every problem plaguing the state is the result of undue influence of special interest groups in the Capitol. Positioned on the stage between his two better-financed rivals, the senator from Santa Monica sounded somewhat like a family counselor trying to keep a failing marriage together.
"John and Kathleen should not attack each other," Hayden said. "These are good people in a bad system."
Hayden clearly was delighted as he watched his rivals move toward his positions on taxes and campaign reform.
Brown, while still declining to provide specific ideas for balancing the state's budget, sketched a plan that was more detailed than any she had offered before.
She said she would favor extending a temporary income tax increase on the wealthy as long as the Legislature also agreed to continue a freeze on cost-of-living increases for welfare mothers. Brown said a thorough performance review of Texas state government had yielded $5 billion in savings and predicted that as much could be found in California.
And although Brown said her first budget principle would be "no new taxes," she also told Hayden: "I support closing those tax loopholes." She did not say which ones.
Garamendi has stated flatly that he would extend the tax hike on upper-income wage-earners and said he would close the loopholes that "make no sense." He also said he was sure the state could cut 2% from overall spending--about $1 billion--a number that Hayden has been using for weeks.
Brown and Garamendi both say they are longtime supporters of campaign reform, but they were not talking much about the issue before Hayden pressed them on it. Now both say that as governor, they would sign legislation to limit campaign contributions and allow limited taxpayer financing of campaigns.
The confrontations between Brown and Garamendi had more to do with their records in office than their positions on issues.
Garamendi, continuing to take the offensive against Brown in the hope of tarnishing her image, accused the treasurer of investing more of the state's pension funds in Japan than in California. Mimicking Brown's campaign slogan that she is "America's best treasurer," Garamendi said, "Perhaps you are Japan's best treasurer."
The insurance commissioner twice accused Brown of improperly extracting $1 million in political campaign contributions from bond firms that do business with the state.
"Shall we talk about the million dollars that you have received from the bond houses as you have shaken them down to finance your campaign to become governor?" he asked at one point.
Launching her sharpest counterattack yet against Garamendi, Brown charged that five audits have found "waste, mismanagement and abuse" in his office and that national business journals have described his takeover of a failing insurance company was "botched, bungled and dumb." She also charged that the insurance commissioner has not lived up to his promise to deliver rebates under Proposition 103.
"Let's talk about your record where you have been reckless as well," she said. "Two-thirds of the (rebate) money you promised hasn't been delivered. I'll put my record against yours any day."
The one issue on which the candidates differed the most was capital punishment.
Brown repeatedly evaded the panel's attempts to get her to say why she is personally opposed to the death penalty.
"I will enforce the law of this state," Brown said. When pressed on the basis for her personal beliefs, which she has never explained publicly, Brown instead said she would have denied clemency to murderer Robert Alton Harris, who was executed in 1992.
Brown also said she supported the "three strikes" sentencing bill recently enacted by the Legislature and the governor, wants more boot camps for first-time offenders and favors a total ban on assault weapons. But she steadfastly refused to discuss her personal beliefs.
"The issue of the death penalty is being used as a smoke screen," she said.
The two other candidates answered the question directly.
Hayden said he was "divided" on the issue. One side of him, perhaps his "Irish side," he said, wants the death penalty as an option. But Hayden said his "temperate side" sees the ultimate punishment as flawed and irreversible and he would prefer to use life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Garamendi said he was not at all torn about capital punishment.
"I stand firmly in support of the death penalty," he said. "There's no ambivalence about where I stand."
Times political writer Bill Stall contributed to this article.