Recall Rivals Use Debate to Go on Attack
The five leading contenders to replace Gov. Gray Davis tossed off barbs and swapped one-liners Wednesday night in a raucous debate over taxes, immigration and the economy.
For all their substantive differences, the most heat was shed when the hopefuls, seated together and questioned in round-robin fashion, unleashed a series of personal put-downs.
The two main antagonists, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican -- making his first debate appearance -- and writer Arianna Huffington, an independent, bickered throughout the evening.
At one point, when Schwarzenegger interrupted her, Huffington turned and said, “This is the way you treat women, we know that.” The remark was an evident reference to allegations that the film star has treated women disrespectfully.
“I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in ‘Terminator 4,’ ” Schwarzenegger shot back, which Huffington later said referred to a scene in one of his films in which his character thrusts the head of a female robot into a toilet.
The 90-minute forum on the campus of Cal State Sacramento may be the only session Schwarzenegger attends. After passing up several earlier joint appearances, he told reporters Wednesday night he was finished debating.
“Every day is a debate,” he said. “We don’t need to travel around and do this up and down the state and do this all the time.”
Davis, who is the subject of the Oct. 7 recall vote, was not asked to participate Wednesday night, nor were any of the other 130 candidates on the ballot.
The five who attended were provided an advance list of 12 questions, which were submitted to the sponsor, the California Broadcasters Assn., by voters around the state. Despite the sneak peek, the candidates frequently sought to stray from the subject, often interrupting and fighting to be heard over one another. Moderator Stan Statham, president of the broadcasters’ group, repeatedly fought for control.
As for the candidates, the political lines they drew were familiar ones as each trotted out their campaign platforms and spread themselves along the ideological spectrum.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante staked out largely liberal positions on taxes, immigration and government regulation. Alongside him were Huffington and the Green Party’s Peter Camejo, who called for higher taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to help solve the state’s budget problems.
Schwarzenegger, a centrist on social issues, touted his fiscal conservatism by accusing Sacramento of overtaxing Californians and over-regulating state businesses.
Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks staked out the most conservative positions by echoing Schwarzenegger’s economic prescriptions, offering far more detail than the others on specific budget cuts he would make. He further noted his opposition to legalized abortion and gun control.
The tone was testy from the start.
After Schwarzenegger offered a lengthy, statistic-laden criticism of Davis and California’s economic climate, Huffington tartly suggested that his facts were “simply untrue.”
When McClintock disagreed with her, offering his own set of numbers, Camejo chimed in. “Both Tom and Arnold are wrong,” he said.
Huffington suggested corporate tax loopholes were a big part of the reason for California’s budget mess.
“You personally, personal income tax, have the biggest loophole,” Schwarzenegger replied, referring to years in which she made only minimal tax payments. “I can drive my Hummer through it, it’s so big.”
When Huffington attacked the Bush administration, blaming its policies for the state’s economic troubles, Schwarzenegger cut her off again. “If you want to campaign against Bush, go to New Hampshire,” he told her. “You’re in the wrong state right now.”
Personal shots aside, the candidates did offer contrasting views on a number of issues.
McClintock pointed out he was the only candidate on the stage who signed an iron-clad pledge not to raise taxes. Indeed, he vowed to cut taxes, slash spending by billions of dollars and roll back regulations he views as burdensome to business -- a total of $18 billion in savings “without even breaking a sweat.”
McClintock came into the debate under heavy lobbying from many in his party to quit the race and back Schwarzenegger. While he did not directly take on his fellow Republican, McClintock showed no sign that he planned to step aside.
“When I make a promise, I keep it,” McClintock said. “I steer a straight course and I stay the course, no matter what the pressure.”
Schwarzenegger, too, called for austere fixes to California’s fiscal troubles, but stopped short of signing onto McClintock’s no-taxes pledge. Politicians “keep spending and spending and spending, then when they realize they made a mistake and they spent money they don’t even have, then they go out, they go and tax, tax, tax,” he said.
He tried repeatedly to reclaim the ground on which he entered the race -- the outsider competing against a smattering of veteran politicians -- repeatedly blaming Bustamante for the actions taken by Davis.
“You guys have an addiction problem,” he said of Bustamante and his fellow Democrats. “You should go to an addiction place, because you cannot stop spending.”
He said Davis and state lawmakers had failed to reverse the skyrocketing price of insurance that employers pay to cover workers injured on the job -- even with a newly passed reform package.
“Cruz, the workers’ compensation reform that you guys just did was total pre-election bogus, and you know that, because this is all trickery, just like the budget was,” Schwarzenegger said.
Only he, Schwarzenegger suggested, could stop the Sacramento establishment from strangling the state’s economy.
“Where are the jobs?” he said. “Gone, gone, gone. That’s the problem we’re facing here.”
Huffington accused Schwarzenegger of painting an overly negative portrait of the state economy. “Gloom and doom stories ... are simply a perpetuation of the Republican idea [that] if you simply do everything businesses want ... then all will be well,” she said.
For his part, Bustamante called for higher taxes on the wealthy, as well as on alcohol and tobacco, along with lower college tuition and a reduction in the state’s vehicle license fee -- or car tax -- for the first $20,000 of an auto’s value. He said Sacramento had exhausted easy solutions to its chronic budget problems, so nothing but “tough love” -- and his particular prescriptions -- could restore California’s fiscal health.
“There’s no rocket science to this,” he said.
Huffington shot back: “It’s tough love for everybody except your big campaign contributors,” citing prison guards and casino-owning Indian tribes as donors coddled by the lieutenant governor.
The candidates also clashed on immigration, which has proven to be an enduring issue in the recall jousting.
Bustamante, Huffington and Camejo each praised a bill signed by Davis that will let illegal immigrants obtain California driver’s licenses.
“End this apartheid system that we have toward them,” Camejo said.
Schwarzenegger called the measure a threat to public safety and accused Davis of reversing his initial opposition to the bill to curry favor with Latino voters in the recall. The governor has touted the measure in a Spanish-language television ad.
“Now, all of a sudden, it is a great idea, let’s get some more votes,” Schwarzenegger said. “That is the idea of those things. It is wrong to do that.”
Huffington recalled that Schwarzenegger had supported Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that would have barred public services to illegal immigrants. She criticized him for opposing the driver’s license bill.
“I was really saddened that you, as an immigrant, would come out against that basic right to immigrants here who are trying to drive to go to work, to take their kids to school,” she said.
McClintock said the measure rewards illegal immigration, saying the influx costs California $4 billion a year.
“There are millions of people who are willing to abide by our immigration laws to come to this nation, become Americans and see their children grow up and prosper as Americans,” he said. “Illegal immigration is the process of cutting in line in front of them.”
The candidates also differed over the recall itself.
Schwarzenegger, McClintock, Huffington and Camejo all endorsed the unprecedented election, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
The actor said the vote was consistent with the spirit of early 20th century Progressive reformer Hiram Johnson.
McClintock said that voters occasionally make mistakes and reelecting Davis last November was one “that must be corrected.”
But Bustamante called the recall “a terrible idea.”
However, the lieutenant governor declined to defend Davis when Huffington attacked him at one point for raising college tuition to help close the state’s massive budget shortfall.
“Talk to him,” Bustamante said.
Times staff writers Matea Gold and Dan Morain contributed to this report.
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Comparing statements with the record
Here is a look at some of the assertions made during the debate, with a brief assessment of their context and accuracy.
* When Arianna Huffington suggested that the state could save money by stopping construction of the $335-million Delano II state prison project, which would cost an additional $265 million in interest payments, Bustamante said: “There are specific bonds let for specific construction projects. If that project was not built, the taxpayers of California would not save one dime.” Bustamante is correct in saying that bonds are offered to fund specific projects. The state has already spent nearly $300 million to construct the prison, now halted, but the bonds have not yet been sold.
The state is already on the hook for the money spent, but if the prison were abandoned, the state would not have to spend tens of millions in yearly operating costs.
* Responding to a question about the health of the state economy, Bustamante said that “during the dot-com boom we were doing 7,100 new business start-ups. Today we are averaging 7,700 new business start-ups.” According to the California Department of Finance, in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, the highest number of new filings was slightly over 6,000 in a month. The monthly record for incorporations was reached in February of this year, with about 8,700. The latest figures available are from May, when 7,900 new businesses were incorporated. Since 1997, the trend for business start-ups has generally been upward.
* Describing the role of undocumented workers in California’s economy, Bustamante said that “70% of people who pick our food are these immigrants, 30% of construction workers, 40% of hotel workers.” An estimated 7 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, about half of them in California. State officials in California estimate about 2 million are working in the state and would be eligible for driver’s licenses under a bill recently signed by Davis. But specifying the percentage of such workers in specific industries is difficult because they and their employers are typically reluctant to acknowledge their immigration status.
* Contended during the debate that the average Californian pays 9.2% in taxes, while the wealthiest 1% of people in the state pay only 7.2%. He also said that “Latinos in California pay a higher tax rate than European Americans.” These statements are difficult to evaluate, in part because Camejo did not say whether he was referring to individual state income tax burdens, or total tax liability including other forms of taxation, such as sales taxes. Taxpayers with incomes of $500,000 or more account for about 1% of state taxpayers but pay 40% of all state income taxes. Tax rates are identical for people of all races and ethnic origins.
* Said that if the $600 million Delano II prison project were canceled, the state could channel the money back into higher education, allowing this year’s tuition increases to be reversed. “Six hundred million dollars would completely make it possible for us to roll back the tuition fee hikes and still have $150 million to spend,” she said. Higher education spending cuts from the 2003-04 budget did total about $450 million. But because the prison would be financed by the sale of bonds, canceling the project would not release new funds for higher education.
* Said that California could cut spending “without even breaking a sweat” by revamping the state contracting system to save $9 billion and abolishing some state agencies to cut $6 billion. McClintock has adopted many of the ideas of the libertarian Reason Foundation, which has produced studies showing the state could save billions by contracting out more government services.
State employee unions, however, argue that the opposite is true. They cite the example of state nursing and engineering contracts that were awarded to private companies at rates that far exceed those of government workers. To cut government agencies by as much as McClintock suggests would likely result in the elimination of many state services.
* Claimed that illegal immigrants were directly costing the state treasury at least $4 billion annually. While California does pay emergency health care, education and prison costs for undocumented immigrants, there is debate over the amount that undocumented workers contribute to California’s economy by paying taxes and providing labor.
* Said that everyone has “friends, family and neighbors who are leaving California and finding a better place out in the Nevada and Arizona desert.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.2 million people left California from 1995 to 2000, the highest migration numbers in the country. The states attracting the largest numbers of Californians were Nevada, Arizona and Texas. However, state data indicate that since 1999, California has once again been gaining more people from other states than it is losing.
* Said that businesses in California are overburdened “right now with workers’ compensation and with Medi-Cal and all those kinds of things.” Businesses do not pay a separate assessment to the state’s Medi-Cal program, which serves the poorest Californians and is funded through the state and federal government.
* Said the state faces “the worst economic atmosphere, job atmosphere in California. Businesses are leaving the state and jobs are leaving the state.” By several measures the state’s economy is in no worse condition than that of the nation as a whole. In the last two years, the state has lost nearly 294,000 jobs -- or 2% of its nonfarm payroll positions. That is the same percentage drop recorded by the U.S as a whole. Experts see signs that the economy is rebounding. The state Employment Development Department had estimated that job losses in July would exceed 20,000. But the department later lowered that estimate by half.
* Described state officials as eager to raise taxes. “Politicians keep spending, spending, spending,” he said. “Then they go out and tax, tax, tax.” State tax rates are lower now than they have been in at least a decade. In 2000, California ranked 19th out of the 50 states in tax burdens, according to a study released recently by the Federation of Tax Administrators. The ranking reflects state and local taxes and fees as a percentage of total income.
* Said that electricity costs for businesses in California are “much, much higher than anywhere in the nation.” Though California’s commercial electricity costs are among the highest in the nation, they are significantly below the very highest. The highest average costs are in Washington, D.C., and the highest rates are in Hawaii.
Compiled by Times staff writers Jia-Rui Chong, Sue Fox, Megan Garvey, Evan Halper, Allison Hoffman, Mitchell Landsberg, Peter Nicholas and Jeffrey L. Rabin
Los Angeles Times