It was billed as a debate, but the confrontation between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown at UC Davis this week was as much a rehash of campaign rhetoric as verbal fisticuffs. It wasn’t exactly Dancing With The Stars – but we’ll get into the celebrities later.
But the debate did set the tone for the final five weeks of California’s interminable campaign for governor: Whitman will poke Brown for protecting unions, Brown will spank Whitman for protecting the wealthy.
They did talk policy and exchanged a few jabs in their first of three scheduled encounters. Public employee pensions, unemployment, illegal immigration and tax policy dominated the hour-long debate.
But Whitman relied heavily on well-worn stories from the campaign trail and set talking points throughout the debate, calling for efficient government, lower taxes and streamlined regulations in ways that sounded familiar to anyone who’s heard Whitman on the stump. And, of course, she continually focused on Brown’s campaign support from public-employee unions.
Whitman did fire off a new quip that putting Brown in charge of union negotiations was like “putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”
She said Brown was shirking responsibility for what she called his failed policies. “You know what drives me crazy about career politicians?” she asked rhetorically. “They refuse to take responsibility.”
Brown said Whitman’s tax package would “benefit billionaires and millionaires,” and would adversely affect public education funding.
In part, the debate was like ping-pong: For every anti-union barb from Whitman, Brown responded with an anti-Wall Street rant, linking the billionaire Whitman to corporate America.
As the debate wore on, Brown seemed to gain momentum. At times, he was animated and jocular, cracking wise about his pension plan and assurances that he wouldn’t run for president. When talking about a budget surplus while he was governor, Brown said: “That surplus didn’t drop down from the tooth fairy. I created that damn thing.”
When asked for assurances that he would not run again, Brown quipped: “Age. Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again,” he said. “I have a wife… I won’t try to close down the bars of Sacramento like I did when I was governor.”
One of the sharpest exchanges of the debate came over the accuracy of Whitman’s ubiquitous television ads. Whitman defended her ad using Bill Clinton’s words to attack Jerry Brown. She said Brown took a $6-billion surplus to $1-billion deficit and that he raised taxes as governor.
“Jerry Brown doesn’t like the ad because it calls out his record,” Whitman said. “I stand by the ads. They are an accurate portrayal of Jerry Brown’s record.”
Brown responded that his ad featuring Whitman with a nose growing like Pinocchio was “a hell of an ad.”
Whitman defended her record spending on the campaign saying she was fighting against “a pretty big set of entrenched interests” – namely organized labor.
The next debate will be Saturday afternoon in Fresno.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the differences between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown came after the first gubernatorial debate was over.
More than 100 members of the media were set up in the “spin room,” where candidates traditionally come to speak to the press after a debate.
Whitman bowed to convention, coming in briefly – less than three minutes, actually – during which she answered just three questions. She made a quick exit, saying she was going out to eat with her husband.
Then the media waited for Brown. And waited. Finally, word came that Brown was not going to come to the spin room, but was going to go outside to talk to “real people,” whoever those are.
Soon, a crowd gathered in the lobby, as TV cameras and reporters created an amorphous blog, trailing Brown as he ambled through the lobby.
Brown stepped outside into the warm Davis evening where he was greeted by protesters shouting: “What’s your plan?!”
Brown quickly did an about-face, and led the pack back through the lobby of the Mondavi Center, avoiding questions as the pack followed. At the orchestra entrance, Brown left the pack in his wake, and made his exit. Not exactly by the book.
Rodriguez, Baldwin weigh in
If you’re among those who still can’t decide who to vote for for California governor, we may have reached the pivotal campaign moment you’ve been waiting for. Forget the latest ads and stump speeches, never mind the recent polls and policy positions. Finally, two titans of the California political landscape have weighed in with their thoughts on the California governor’s race, and they could just tip the balance in this closest of gubernatorial elections.
At long last, Alec Baldwin and Paul Rodriguez have spoken.
Meg Whitman announced via press release Monday that she has received the endorsement of Rodriguez, a comedian and political activist. Whether this is an effort to shore up the Latino vote, or the Fresno vote in the wake of recent comments made to the San Jose Mercury News, we can’t be sure. Rodriguez is the chairman of the Latino Water Coalition, a group funded and backed by large agricultural interests in the Central Valley.
Rodriguez called Whitman an “independent thinking candidate who is committed to what we care about most: jobs and education” in a press release sent by the Whitman campaign.
Baldwin, meanwhile, announced his support for Brown in a scathing anti-Whitman column on the Huffington Post. Baldwin called Whitman “a business success story who now believes that power is her next entitlement and governing is the next challenging hobby.”