In a blistering final debate, Democratic candidate for governor Jerry Brown apologized to his Republican counterpart Meg Whitman on Tuesday for a slur directed at her by an associate, an apology that Whitman did not explicitly accept as she cast his campaign as insulting to all Californians.
Brown continued to insist that Whitman was seeking office to enrich wealthy Californians such as herself, while she derided Brown as a “same old same old” politician who helped lead California into its present straits and said she represented a fresh start for the beleaguered state.
The 60-minute contest, held at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, crackled with disagreements on a host of issues, but the sharpest jousting came on the dispute that has roiled the campaign in recent days — an inadvertent recording of a Brown strategy session in which an unidentified person suggests portraying Whitman as a “whore” for creating a loophole in her pension plan to appeal to public safety unions that were endorsing her in the governor’s race.
Moderator Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchorman, told Brown that the word represents, to many women, the same sort of insult that “the N-word” represents to African Americans.
Brown at first said he did not agree with the comparison — a statement that drew an audible reproach from the crowd — and sought to question the timing of the release of the “5-week-old private conversation … with garbled transmission.”
“I will say the campaign apologized promptly and I’m affirming that apology tonight,” he said.
“You’re repeating it to Ms. Whitman?” Brokaw asked.
“Yes, I am,” Brown said. “It’s unfortunate. I’m sorry it happened. I apologize.”
Whitman, however, told Brown that Californians “deserve better than slurs and personal attacks.”
“I think every Californian, and especially women, know exactly what’s going on here and that is a deeply offensive term to women,” she said.
Brown asked Whitman if she had similarly chastised her campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who used the same term in a criticism of Congress.
“You know better than that, Jerry; that is a completely different thing,” she said, a retort that drew another rumble of reaction from the crowd. “The fact that you are defending your campaign for a slur and a personal attack on me — it’s not befitting of California, it’s not befitting of the office that you are running for.”
Brown apologized a third time, and said that the utterance “does not represent anything other than things that happen in campaigns.” But, he pointedly added, Whitman had received police endorsements after exempting safety officials from key parts of her pension reform plan — which he had refused to do.
“You got the endorsement of that union, I didn’t, because they said I’d be too tough on unions and public employee pensions, and I’ll take that,” Brown said.
“I got that endorsement because that union knows that I will be tough on crime,” Whitman replied. “And Jerry Brown has a 40-year record of being soft on crime.”
The debate which aired on NBC stations, followed a tumultuous several weeks for the candidates, who faced controversies over the slur by the unidentified Brown associate and revelations that Whitman had employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years.
The latter issue came up only briefly toward the end of the debate, with Whitman asserting that her experience showed the need for a better verification system and Brown calling for a “human” response to handling the millions of illegal immigrants now in the country.
Apart from the confrontation over the taped conversation, the debate followed the contours of the long race for governor, now three weeks away from a decision. Brown cast himself as a candidate who could bring to the governor’s office an experienced sense of how the state functions. Whitman cast herself as the outsider with what she called a “common sense” approach.
Brown tried to strike at her intentions early, though, when he turned a question about the impact of Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax relief measure, into an indictment of Whitman’s plan to eradicate the state’s capital gains tax.
“One thing I wouldn’t do to compound our budget deficit and our tax unfairness, I wouldn’t totally eliminate the capitals gains tax, which my opponent Meg Whitman wants to do,” Brown said. “That capital gains tax benefits mostly millionaires and billionaires and would add five to 10 billion to our budget deficit, and a lot of that money would come from public schools and I just don’t believe that’s right.”
Whitman said Brown was “just wrong” and cast the tax cut as one that would lead to “more jobs, more business, more tax revenue.”
Brown countered that more than 80% of the benefit would go to those making at least half a million dollars a year. “And there’s not one guarantee they’ll spend that money in California,” he said, wheeling to add: “Ms. Whitman, I’d like to ask you: How much money will you save if this tax break were in effect this year or last year?”
“You know what, I’m an investor. And investors will benefit from this, but so will job creators. And I was a job creator,” Whitman said.
“And you know what, we’ve got to get someone in office who knows what the conditions are for small business to grow and thrive. My track record is creating jobs. My business is creating jobs. Your business is politics. You’ve been doing this for 40 years. And you have been part of the war on jobs in this state for 40 years.”
Neither of the candidates has floated plans to deal completely with the state’s perennial budget woes, but Whitman argued Tuesday that her outsider status gave her more credibility to tackle entrenched problems.
“If you like the process we have in Sacramento, if you think this has worked for Californians, then you should elect Jerry Brown, because if he goes to Sacramento, it will be the same old same old,” she said.
But Brown argued that the state would be in far better shape had reforms he suggested as governor been carried out.
“I’ve been in the kitchen, I’ve taken the heat, I know what it is to say yes and what it is to say no,” he said. “She’s been in bleachers, [looking] from the Internet company at what’s happening in government. I’ve been in this government, I love California, I know how it works and I’ve got the intestinal fortitude to do what is right for California.”
The candidates differed on the state’s global warming law, with Whitman repeating her plan to postpone it for a year of study into its effect on jobs, and Brown declaring that such a move would rattle green investors looking for certainty.
The two also clashed on Brown’s response to the passage of Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that outlawed same-sex marriage. Whitman struck at his refusal to defend the measure in court, and Brown said he was not required to defend a measure that a judge had found unconstitutional.
The high tension was broken a few times, with what looked to be relief from both candidates.
At one point, Whitman was mocking Brown’s plan to cut 10% to 15% of the governor’s own budget if he is elected. “Do you know how much the governor’s budget is?” Whitman asked.
“Yeah, it’s a lot bigger than when I was there,” he responded, to laughs from the audience.
Brown also stumbled, and recovered to laughs from the crowd, when he was describing his support from police chiefs.
“I’ve got the police chiefs in my back — backing me because they know I’m tough on crime,” he said.
Whitman quickly interjected with a laugh: “I think he said he’s got the police chiefs in his back pocket.”
Brown smiled, then mocked his 40-year career.
“Sometimes, unaccustomed as I am to politics, I stumble in one of my phrases,” he said.
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Michael J. Mishak contributed to this report from San Rafael.