Brown, Kashkari engage in testy gubernatorial debate

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

Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, offered clashing visions of California and open disdain for one another Thursday night in a testy, fast-paced debate that sharpened the contrasts between the two rivals on a wide gamut of issues.

Kashkari went on the attack in his opening remarks, suggesting that Brown’s depiction of a California on the mend masked the reality of widespread poverty, unemployment and substandard schools.

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

Brown brushed aside the barbs, saying the state was in “shambles” when he took office but has taken strides forward with the creation of 1.4 million jobs and the elimination of a multibillion-dollar deficit.


“In the last four years, we haven’t solved all the problems, but boy, what momentum we have,” Brown said.

The hourlong confrontation marked the dramatic high point in an otherwise somnolent campaign. Brown maintains a wide lead in the polls and an overwhelming advantage in fundraising.

For Kashkari, the debate offered a critical opportunity to change the dynamic of the race. The former Wall Street bank bailout chief is running for office for the first time and did not appear to stumble.

He has too little money to fund an extensive advertising campaign, and the debate was his best — probably only — chance to reach a statewide audience before the November election.


It’s unclear that large numbers of voters saw the match, however. Though TV and radio networks aired the debate statewide, it was competing with the National Football League’s season opener, which pitted the Green Bay Packers against 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 tart exchange.

In addition to KQED, the debate was sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Telemundo and the California Channel.

Thursday morning, there were questions about whether it would take place. Sponsors threatened to call off the event unless Kashkari dropped his insistence that the candidates be allowed to stand as an accommodation to his lower back strain. Kashkari agreed to the seating arrangement hours before the debate.


Throughout the clash, Brown repeatedly dismissed Kashkari’s candidacy and resume, at one point saying his Republican challenger had no chance of winning. Later on, when Kashkari asked Brown if he had read his tax plan, Brown responded, “I have read it, and I was very unimpressed, to tell you the truth.”

Brown mocked Kashkari’s history as a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who then 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.”

Kashkari in turn contrasted his background — the son of immigrants — with Brown’s, the son of a former governor, suggesting he was born to a life of power and privilege.


Kashkari also criticized Brown’s appeal of 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 instructors. He accused Brown of 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.


Brown responded by saying that he was required to appeal the decision because the state Constitution requires that the Court of Appeals invalidate a California law.

He cited his experience founding charter schools in Oakland that served the needy and his successful effort to send increased money to schools serving the poor, foster children and English-language learners.

The men clashed over water, a plastic grocery bag ban that Brown announced mid-debate that he would sign, and Tesla’s announcement Thursday that it was opening a $5-billion battery factory in Nevada instead of California.

Kashkari said Tesla was only the latest corporation to decide not to do business in the state because of a poor business climate and a lack of effort by Brown. The governor countered that the company asked for too much in incentives.


“We fought hard for Tesla,” Brown said. “But Tesla wanted a massive cash upfront payment that I don’t think would be fair to the taxpayers.”

Kashkari called Brown’s $68-billion plan for a bullet train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco a “vanity project.” And he tried to goad the governor by suggesting that his father, former Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, had a better grasp of California’s water challenges. He accused Brown of neglecting water storage needs, saying money for new reservoirs in a proposed water bond was insufficient.

Brown, in turn, defended his controversial plan to drill two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta to divert fresh water south, saying it was crucial to protect California’s water supply from a catastrophic salt-water intrusion from an earthquake or rising sea levels.

“I don’t think this man really understand what’s at stake,” Brown said.


Kashkari had challenged Brown to 10 debates.

Shortly before Thursday night’s event ended, Brown rejected a suggestion from Myers that the men debate again.

“I think we’ve exposed the differences, they’re pretty clear to me,” he said. “And by the way, in this kind of format, you can play it over and over again in your house.”


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Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.