Gray Davis and Dan Lungren concluded their series of four gubernatorial debates Thursday night the way they started last summer, scrapping over abortion, crime, the environment and which candidate is closer to mainstream California.
In a largely low-key session with shades of deja vu, Democrat Davis seized the offense at the start. He cast Republican Lungren as an extremist so far to the right he was often a minority within the ranks of the minority Republicans he served with in Congress in the 1980s.
“Dan Lungren is not a bad person, but he is a bad choice to lead California,” said Davis, the state’s lieutenant governor. “He is simply out of step on too many issues. He would take us backwards.”
Lungren, in turn, repeatedly invoked the name of former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., for whom Davis served as chief of staff. Lungren accused Brown of a soft-on-crime, tough-on-business approach that would serve as a model for a Davis administration.
“We will have, if I’m elected, less taxation,” said Lungren, the state attorney general. “If he is elected, we will have more taxation. We will have less regulation if I’m elected. You’ll have more regulation if he’s elected.”
There was little new ground broken in Thursday night’s session, heading into the final two weeks of the race. There were no evident gaffes and no apparent breakthroughs to change the dynamic of a race that has consistently shown Davis holding a modest but steady lead in polls.
On one of the few new issues raised--gay marriage--both candidates were united in opposing legal recognition of same-sex unions. “I do not believe the state is ready for gay marriages,” Davis said. Lungren went further, saying he would sign a bill that would explicitly state that only heterosexual unions would be recognized by the state.
At a post-debate press conference, Lungren raised one other fresh issue, the matter of a fifth debate, suggesting that Davis has reneged on a “handshake agreement” for a concluding session in Los Angeles.
“As we left the stage, I shook Gray’s hand and I said, ‘I hope to see you for the fifth debate,’ ” Lungren told reporters.
But Davis indicated he is finished with debating. The Democrat said he had offered Lungren four dates for a fifth session before Oct. 15, his self-imposed cutoff, without reaching agreement. “Mr. Lungren has debated me more often than all four gubernatorial campaigns that preceded our race,” Davis told reporters. “I’ve enjoyed these special moments with Dan, but I’ve got to meet some voters and persuade them to vote for me.”
Most of the 55-minute session at San Francisco State was dedicated to revisiting old themes and rehashing arguments from the three previous face-to-face matchups.
Davis once more attacked Lungren for his opposition to abortion. “He wants the government to be Big Brother,” Davis said.
Lungren picked up a theme he raised in the candidates’ first debate, held in July in San Diego, contrasting his hands-on work as a member of Congress for 10 years and as California’s attorney general with Davis’ meager responsibilities as lieutenant governor. “There’s a difference between talk and action,” Lungren said.
While Davis was the early aggressor, both men subsequently spent a good portion of the debate on the defensive.
Picking apart Lungren’s environmental record in Congress, Davis noted that Lungren supported offshore oil drilling--alone among members of the California congressional delegation--and opposed clean air and clean water legislation backed by many of his fellow Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, Pete ilson and Newt Gingrich.
Lungren defended his votes by saying he took a politically courageous stand for fiscal prudence. “There was a small band of us. . . . We believed you could not only have good government but you could have a balanced budget,” Lungren said. “If there were more of us in that hearty band, we would have had a balanced budget 10 years ago, instead of just now.”
Davis, in turn, was forced to defend his support for the environmentalist “Big Green” ballot measure in 1990 and neutrality on Proposition 211 in 1996, which would have made it easier to prevail in shareholder lawsuits. Lungren called them two “job killer” initiatives and said Davis’ stand demonstrated his hostility toward business.
In reply, Davis ticked off a series of tax cuts he supported as state controller and while serving in the state Assembly and insisted, “I take a back seat to no one in my desire to keep industry here; to keep high-paying jobs in this state.”
Under harsh attack from Davis, Lungren was also forced to defend his record as attorney general on issues dealing with the tobacco industry, a major source of campaign funding, and for his enforcement of the state’s ban on assault weapons.
Besides opposing recognition of gay marriages, there were other areas of agreement. Davis and Lungren both called for higher teacher standards and accountability as part of the way to improve the state’s public schools.
The two were equally vague about how to approach California’s massive infrastructure needs over the next few years, offering little beyond a promise to bring interested parties to the table to reach agreement.
Both cited recent precedent as a reason to support their candidacies.
Noting that he fulfilled his pledge as attorney general to help bring down California’s crime rate, Lungren said, “Now, when I tell you I will take our schools from last to first, you can count on it. When I tell you we will continue to drive crime down, you can depend on it. When I tell you that we will cut wasteful spending and taxes, you can take that to the bank.”
In his closing statement, Davis alluded to Wilson’s tempestuous tenure--marked by high-profile fights over illegal immigration and affirmative action, among other touchy issues--and vowed to bring a more harmonious governing style to Sacramento. “I believe it’s time for a governor who’s a healer, not a divider,” Davis said. “Frankly, I’ve seen too much drift, decline and demagoguery in Sacramento the last eight years.”
Unlike earlier debates, which were broadcast live throughout the state, the session in San Francisco drew only spotty coverage. In Los Angeles--the state’s major television market and home to roughly 30% of the electorate--not a single broadcast outlet carried the debate live or in its entirety.
The session Thursday night was actually the sixth time Davis and Lungren have shared a stage, going back to two debates in the primary that included Davis’ Democratic opponents, Jane Harman and Al Checchi. Davis and Lungren staged four more one-on-one debates after capturing their respective party nominations in June.
Times political writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.
Video clips of Thursday’s and previous Davis-Lungren debates are available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/elect98