By Jennifer Gollan
SAN RAFAEL — From jobs to special interests, California Attorney General Jerry Brown and his rival Meg Whitman sparred over the state’s intractable problems and traded rhetorical roundhouse jabs over the recent controversies dogging the gubernatorial candidates in their last debate before the November election Tuesday night.
The pair spent one hour debating soaring pension costs, taxes and immigration at Dominican University. The debate, moderated by veteran NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, followed fumbles that have weighed on both campaigns over the last two weeks; an undocumented maid in Whitman’s case, and a “whore” insult lobbed at Whitman from Brown’s camp.
In response to the heated wrangling, the audience erupted in frequent whoops and rounds of applause — leading Brokaw at one point to request that the crowd be less “demonstrative.”
Tuesday’s debate gave the candidates their last chance (on a shared stage) to bury any controversy and woo female and independent voters, crucial blocs for either candidate to win on Nov. 2. Recent polls show Brown and Whitman locked in a virtual tie.
Brown, a former two-term California governor, chastised Whitman as a political upstart whose experience as eBay's former chief executive officer would be moot in Sacramento. Whitman, the Republican nominee, described her Democratic rival as being “in the back pocket” of labor unions and other special interests, leaving him incapable of slicing public employee pension benefits and untangling other problems.
“This is about change versus the status quo,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “It was a chance for each to take a last stab at resolving their own scandals and take a last jab at their opponent.”
The candidates face daunting challenges including unemployment and legislative gridlock. California’s unemployment rate is 12.4 percent, the third-highest rate in the nation. Meanwhile, lawmakers recently passed a budget for the next fiscal year — more than three months late.
Both candidates sought to distance themselves from recent flaps. Brown tried to tamp down the blowback from an incident involving one of his campaign workers, who called Whitman a “whore” at least twice. The statements were inadvertently recorded at the end of a voice mail message Brown had been leaving for a Los Angeles police union.
“It’s unfortunate,” Brown said. “I’m sorry it happened and I apologize.”
Whitman countered that the slur was deeply offensive to women, a strategic reference to a core slice of the electorate.
“Every Californian, and especially women, know what’s going on here, and it’s a deeply offensive term,” Whitman said, adding: “It is not befitting of the office you are running for.”
But Whitman quickly found herself defending her decision last year to fire Nicandra Diaz-Santillan, her former housekeeper of nine years, after learning she was an undocumented immigrant. Brokaw, in one of several pointed questions, asked, “If you couldn’t find someone in your home was illegal, how do you expect businesses to?” Whitman dismissed the controversy, saying Californians had moved beyond it.
Brown, for one, had not.
“It’s sort of a sad story. She didn’t even get her a lawyer, which she could have done,” he said.
The candidates pounded each other on special interests; Brown said he had the experience to stand up to powerful labor unions and teachers, while Whitman positioned herself as an outsider immune to such interests.
Brown chastised Whitman for carving out an exception for police, firefighters and other state law enforcement in her plan to reform pensions, undercutting her pledge to ignore special interests if elected. Two independent expenditure committees — California Law and Order and the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association — have responded to Whitman’s pension proposal, spending nearly $1.3 million between them on her behalf.
Whitman echoed remarks she has made frequently during the campaign, saying her wealth accorded her independence that Brown lacked. The Republican nominee has thumped Brown in campaign spending, pouring $140 million of her personal fortune into her election bid — making her the top-spending candidate for statewide office in U.S. history.
“It allows me to go to Sacramento with no strings attached,” Whitman said.
Whitman said she would lift the economy by eliminating the capital gains tax — something Brown said would aid corporate executives at the expense of school funding.
Both candidates vowed to beat back pension costs. Brown advocated a two-tiered pension system. By contrast, Whitman proposed a 401(k)-type plan for rank-and-file employees, with an exception for police, firefighters and other state law enforcement officials that allowed them to retain guaranteed pension benefits, known as defined benefit plans.
“Jerry brown is beholden to these public employees unions,” Whitman said. “They are paying for all the expenditures that are paying for the attack ads against me. I will have the independence to take on this very serious problem.”
Brown said he would leverage his experience to stand up to these unions.
“I don’t have to learn on the job … I have done this before,” Brown said, taking a swipe at Whitman.
But it’s that very expertise that would drag down Brown’s leadership, Whitman said.
For example, Brown’s plan to solve the budget crisis by cutting the governor’s budget by 10 to 15 percent — or roughly $18 million annually — represents just a smidgen of the $19 billion deficit the state faced this year, she said.
Whitman ridiculed Brown for bringing the “same old, same old” approach to Sacramento if elected.
The candidates also took opposite tacks on the environment.
Whitman came out against Proposition 23, which would roll back AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change law. She reiterated her promise to suspend AB 32 until the economy improves, saying green jobs comprise a fraction of the state’s economy.
“AB 32 will do real damage to the jobs that are in the other 97 percent of our economy,” Whitman said. “We cannot jeopardize the jobs of people who are working so hard today.”
Brown condemned the one-year moratorium on the law proposed by Whitman as retrograde.
“It is trying to turn the clock back, it is stop-and-start,” Brown said. “It creates regulatory uncertainty.”