California governor debate: Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari face off

California Gov. Jerry Brown and challenger Neel Kashkari debate in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger Neel Kashkari traded sharp jabs in a scrappy, rapid-fire debate Thursday night that covered a wide array of disagreements over schools, water, energy, jobs, transportation and crime.

The Democratic incumbent opened with a greatest-hits account of his tenure, highlighting the state’s fiscal recovery. But Kashkari pounced in an opening statement of his own that set off an unrelenting rat-a-tat of nasty – but substantive -- exchanges.

“I think Gov. Brown means well,” Kashkari said. “But his 40 years in government has left him out of touch with the struggles of working families.”

VIDEO REPLAY: Brown, Kashkari debate from Sacramento

Brown was quick to snap back at his rival, after Kashkari pivoted from a question about his dismal poll ratings to criticism of the governor’s plan to build a $68-billion bullet train project linking Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“I think the question was, ‘How do you expect to win?’ Neel, and I’ll tell you, you don’t really have much expectation to win, because things have been accomplished in Sacramento,” he said.

Before long, Brown was picking apart Kashkari’s resume as a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who oversaw the U.S. Treasury Department’s bailout of Wall Street banks.

“It’s kind of like the arsonist putting out the fire,” Brown quipped. “I really appreciate that.”

Some of the testiest exchanges involved a judge’s recent ruling that some teacher tenure rules violate the equal education rights of the state’s poor and minority children, by saddling them with inadequate educators. Kashkari hammered Brown for appealing the ruling, saying he was doing the bidding of his teacher union benefactors.

“You had a choice between fighting for the civil rights of poor kids and fighting for the union bosses who funded your campaigns,” Kashkari told Brown, raising his voice and jabbing his finger at the lectern. “You sided with the union bosses. You should be ashamed of yourself, governor.”

“That makes no sense at all,” Brown retorted, pointing back at his rival. “That is so false.”

“It’s absolutely true, governor,” Kashkari responded.

The debate came hours after the release of a Field Poll affirming the steep challenge facing Kashkari; it showed likely voters favor Brown over his rival, 50% to 34%.

TV and radio networks aired the debate statewide but competed for an audience with NBC’s simultaneous broadcast of the National Football League’s season opener, pitting the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, the 2013 Super Bowl champion.

“It’s a good clash, just like the football game on the other channel,” moderator John Myers of KQED public radio interjected after one exchange.

A late dust-up over staging nearly killed the debate, the only one Brown has agreed to. Sponsors threatened to call off the event unless Kashkari dropped his insistence that the candidates be allowed to stand, an accommodation to the Republican’s lower back strain. Kashkari agreed to the seating arrangement Thursday morning.

Below, Los Angeles Times writers and others offer their thoughts:

Preview coverage:

When Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor, steps into a television studio with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday night, he'll be facing one of the most experienced debaters in American politics.

Brown has participated in no fewer than 14 debates, panel discussions and joint appearances with general election opponents while running for governor during a political career spanning more than four decades.

Brown will debate Kashkari only once, said his campaign spokesman, Dan Newman, meaning Thursday's event will be his last debate as a candidate for governor.

Kashkari spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said the candidate's team was "glad the governor has accepted his first debate invitation and hopes he'll show the same respect to the other media outlets whose debate proposals he has ignored."

Brown, who was first elected governor 40 years ago, is seeking an historic fourth term. Polls have found him running about 20 points ahead of Kashkari, who is running for office for the first time.

Kashkari is a former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who has also worked as an investment banker and aerospace engineer.