Sparks fly at Fresno debate

A tense and testy debate in Fresno between gubernatorial contenders Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown generated much heat but little light on the issues that for months have dominated the 2010 election – immigration, tax policy, education and the state budget.

But the recent report that Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, employed an undocumented immigrant for nine years prompted the most forceful exchange thus far between the two contenders. Brown scored significantly against Whitman on the issue. 

The question arose at a pivotal time, when the two candidates are close in the polls and both contenders are looking for support from the Latino community. California’s farm belt — Fresno is the heart — is heavily Latino.

Earlier in the week, a tearful Nicandra Diaz Santillan appeared at news conferences with Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred to describe her experiences with Whitman, who fired her after learning she was in the country illegally.

Whitman, turning to Brown, accused him of engineering the disclosure – Allred is a Brown supporter – and suggested the report was motivated purely by politics. She did not cite evidence.

“You put it out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions,” Whitman told Brown, the state attorney general and a former two-term governor.

Brown, responding, gave Whitman a tongue-lashing.

“Don’t run for governor if you can’t stand up on your own two feet and say, ‘Hey I made a mistake, I’m sorry, let’s go on from here,’” he said. “You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don’t take accountability,” Brown said.

The clearest differences between the two were on tax policy and immigration. Whitman favors a tax break on capital gains to spur business development, while Brown opposes it, in part because he said it would take funds from schools. Brown supports allowing illegal immigrants to obtain legal status over time, Whitman opposes it.

The audience appeared sympathetic to Brown, a long-time supporter of the late Cesar Chavez, the head of the United Farm Workers union. It was Brown, in a dramatic 1975 ceremony at the state Capitol, who signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farm workers to right to form unions.

Brown and Whitman were perhaps closest on water policy, with both supporting the concept of a Peripheral Canal, a huge conduit that would move Northern California water southward around the Delta east of San Francisco to the Central Valley and South California.

But the differences between them were most stark in their demeanors.

Both were aggressive, but Brown far more so. Whitman generally maintained a pleasant smile and a controlled delivery, while Brown was animated, using his hand motions to emphasize his points.

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