In a blustery and vigorous first debate, gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown dueled Tuesday over their differing solutions to California’s dire problems, with Whitman slighting Brown as a tool of labor unions and Brown excoriating her as a billionaire running for office to benefit the rich.
From start to finish, the one-hour debate was a distillation of the months of the general election race, its tone set by an early question about how each would grapple with the state’s $19-billion budget deficit. After Democrat Brown said he would bring all parties together, Republican Whitman seized on his vow.
“Mr. Brown talked about bringing people together,” she said. “It will be a meeting of all the special interests and the unions who are there to collect their IOUs from the campaign that they have funded.”
Brown, the attorney general, responded with a jab at Whitman’s proposed eradication of the capital gains tax, a move he said was “targeted to billionaires like Ms. Whitman and millionaires.”
“It’s a $5-billion tax break that will go to the richest people of California,” he said, a characterization he would repeat again and again. “Eighty-two percent goes to those making over $500,000. And where will that money come from? Our schools. That’s not fair, that’s not right, and it reflects the difference in our values.”
Whitman, the former head of EBay who has put a record $119 million of her own money into the race, repeatedly cast herself as a governor who would be indebted to no one — in contrast, she said, to Brown.
“If you want someone who will just go along and not fundamentally change what is wrong in Sacramento, I’m not your candidate,” she said.
Brown used his experience as a sales pitch, repeatedly focusing on an understanding of state government honed by decades spent in office, including as secretary of state, governor, mayor of Oakland and, now, attorney general.
“I’ve got the know-how, I’ve got the experience, and at this point in my life I’ve got more insight and I believe more independence,” the 72-year-old said.
The two candidates have fought a tight race since the June primary, and the tension occasionally showed during the debate.
Whitman, at 54 making her first bid for office and taking part Tuesday in her highest-profile candidate event, appeared tentative at times and relied on tried-and-true campaign lines uttered at most of her events. Brown was almost the other extreme, tossing off salty remarks with the bluntness that characterized his first governorship, which began 36 years ago.
At one point Brown was reminded that his first tenure as governor was punctuated by unsuccessful bids for the presidency. He was asked whether, were he to be elected in November, he would focus on California rather than presidential pursuits.
“Hell, if I was younger, you’d know I’d be running again. At 74 or whatever it’s going to be in a couple years, I’m ready,” he said, as guffaws broke out in the debate hall. Then he contrasted his bachelor years with the present.
“I now have a wife,” he said. “I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California. So I’m going to spend more time in Sacramento and I’m going to get it done. Don’t worry about that. I’m in for the duration here.”
Earlier, during a discussion of runaway state pension costs, he used his longevity as a punch line.
“Let’s get something real clear. If everybody in state service worked as long as I have, the pension system would be overfunded by 50%,” he said. “By the way, if you elect me governor, I won’t collect till I’m 76.… If I get a second term, it will be 80. So I’m the best pension buy California has ever seen, OK?”
The state’s dominant issues — jobs, economic ruin, the persistent budget deficit — were the subject of many of the questions posed by panelists at the debate, held at UC Davis and sponsored by Capital Public Radio, KCRA-TV ( NBC) Sacramento, the Sacramento Bee and UC Davis. It was the first of three scheduled gubernatorial debates; the next will occur Saturday in Fresno.
Whitman repeated her campaign pledges to streamline state government and ease restrictions on businesses either seeking to set up in the state or already existing here; she has vowed to create 2 million jobs as governor. Brown focused more directly on clean-energy jobs; he has pledged 500,000 green jobs and reminded Whitman and the audience that 1.9 million jobs were created in the state during his 1975-83 stint as governor.
Both candidates decried the dysfunction of Sacramento and said they would get to work earlier and more forcefully than the current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both called for some measure of education reform and pension reform, and dodged a question about rolling back university fees, which have skyrocketed in recent years.
The issue of the death penalty, a rare point of contention in recent years because of the pro-capital punishment unanimity among politicians of both major parties, also arose in part due to court actions this week involving the potential execution of a California inmate. Whitman used it to jab Brown for his stance on the death penalty and appointing anti-capital punishment Justice Rose Bird to the state Supreme Court decades ago.
Brown, who personally opposes capital punishment, said he had defended as attorney general “hundreds and hundreds of death penalty cases.”
“I pledge to the people of this state I will faithfully carry out our law on executions and I’ll do it with compassion and I’ll do it with great fidelity to the rule of law,” he said.
“Jerry Brown has a long, 40-year record of being quite liberal on crime,” Whitman replied, vowing to hasten capital trials.
But more than just the issues, the debate centered on the main question before voters on Nov. 2: whether the key to success for California rests on new blood or experience.
Whitman repeated Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” implying that a California in the hands of a politician was doomed to more dysfunction. She brushed aside criticism of her campaign ads, which have stretched the truth at times.
“We are going to upend the status quo,” she said. “We cannot continue to do things the way we historically have done things.”
But Brown sought to use against her the state’s current governor — like Whitman, a political outsider who promised to end business-as-usual, and now has rock-bottom approval ratings.
“By the way, this business about insanity [being] repeating what we have, we have a man who I very much like, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he was for the private sector, he said he was beholden to no one, he was putting his own money into the campaign, and he was a guy who would run the state like a business,” Brown said. “Well, it didn’t work out that way. It does take know-how.”
Times staff writers Decker and Maeve Reston reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Michael J. Mishak reported from Davis.