Hope for the High Road

The campaign for governor begins in earnest in San Diego this evening when Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren meet in the first of five planned debates. The first debate can set the tone for those to follow, and it’s important that Davis and Lungren, and the questioners, get off to a good start with a serious discussion of issues facing California, for they are many and daunting.

Some obvious topics: education, the economy, the environment, health care, gun control and prisons--all controversial and high on the voters’ agendas. The candidates should be given enough time to discuss issues in depth at the forums they will share. These are all complex matters that cannot be meaningfully addressed in a minute or two.

Perhaps future debates could be limited to several specific issues so that Davis and Lungren do not have to repeat the same ground each time. In this first session, it might be appropriate for them to describe how they envision California changing over the next decade and how state government should deal with that change.

A logical start might be the state’s current budget negotiations, in which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, with Lungren’s support, has insisted on a $3.6-billion cut in the state vehicle license fee, or car tax. Democrats have offered more reasonable tax reductions of up to $2.5 billion, contingent on continued economic growth, and want to spend more on public education than does Wilson.


This is a timely and controversial issue since either Davis or Lungren will inherit the 1998-99 state budget halfway into the fiscal year when he takes office next January. Wilson’s plan would use up virtually all of the state’s $4.4-billion surplus. That could tie the hands of the new governor in offering new programs or reordering spending priorities.

What the voters do not want to hear is an exchange of personal attacks. California voters will have the rare opportunity of seeing and hearing the two candidates discuss the issues thoroughly in the course of the debates. Slipping in a one-line zinger here or there would not do anyone any good. That does not mean that Davis and Lungren should not question each other’s record in office. A candidate’s record is fair game, so long as the actions are presented in context.

In Los Angeles, the debate will be aired on KCAL-TV Channel 9 beginning at 6 p.m. The road to November begins in San Diego tonight. Here’s hoping it’s the high road.