SAN RAFAEL (AP) — California’s gubernatorial candidates engaged in heated exchanges over taxes, job creation and public employee unions in a final debate Tuesday that quickly degenerated into verbal jousting and personal attacks on issues that have dominated the campaign.
Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown had their first testy exchange a few minutes into the debate at Dominican University in San Rafael as the conversation turned to Proposition 13, the 1978 measure approved by California voters that rolled back and capped property taxes.
Brown accused Whitman, the billionaire former eBay chief executive, of promoting a plan to cut regulations and taxes that would benefit her and her wealthy friends. He singled out her proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax. Brown said that would benefit millionaires and billionaires most without any guarantee that they would spend the savings in California.
KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:
“Ms. Whitman, I’d like to ask you how much money would you save if these tax breaks were in effect this year or last year?” Brown said.
She demurred, saying her business was creating jobs, and Brown’s business is politics.
Whitman then accused Brown, the state attorney general, of leaving the state in worse shape than when he began as governor during his tenure from 1975 to 1983.
“You have been part of the war on jobs in this state for 40 years,” she said.
The candidates began the debate saying California must live within its means before it can be turned around, each saying that they are hopeful about its future.
“The California dream is broken,” Whitman said, adding that “tough trade-offs” were needed to control the size of government.
Brown acknowledged that the state, saddled with persistent budget deficits, must realize its limits.
The debate quickly changed course, though, as the candidates debated issues that have been front-and-center in the campaign, including the cost of public employee pensions, education, the environment and immigration. At times the two talked over moderator and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw as they offered rebuttals to their opponent’s claims.
One of the most colorful exchanges came when Brokaw asked Brown about an audiotape released last week in which a female aide used the word “whore” in describing Whitman’s attempt to curry favor with the union representing Los Angeles police officers.
“It’s unfortunate, I’m sorry it happened, and I apologize,” Brown said.
Whitman said the term was not befitting of a gubernatorial campaign. She and Brown then argued over whether Whitman should demand an apology from her campaign manager, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who used the term in 1995 in reference to what he felt was Congress’ role in helping public employee unions.
Whitman said that situation was completely different, prompting Brown to fire back, “It’s not.”
The debate was their final opportunity before a statewide audience to promote their plans for turning around the economically troubled state, which has had an official unemployment rate of 12 percent or higher since August 2009. It comes just three weeks before Election Day, with some voters beginning to cast their ballots and others just starting to tune in. Public opinion polls have shown the candidates are virtually tied, with as many as one in five voters still undecided.
In one exchange, Brown defended his record as governor, saying Whitman’s accusations about state spending during that time were “demonstrably false.” He said taxes went down when he was in Sacramento, but regulations have been added in the nearly three decades since he left.
Whitman called Brown’s response a “classic politician answer.”
“It’s a half-answer and therefore a dishonest answer,” she said. Whitman said unemployment nearly doubled under Brown’s tenure, and she accused him of spending beyond the state’s means.
Brokaw then interjected with his own fact-check, noting the end of Brown’s term came in the midst of a national recession, and four states that had Republican governors then had higher unemployment rates.
Whitman repeatedly accused Brown of being beholden to public employee unions that have spent nearly $20 million boosting his candidacy independently and have given his campaign millions more directly. Brown said he receives support from businesses as well as unions and said he will not feel he owes anything to any contributor.
“I’m independent,” he said.
He also said it was Whitman who courted police and firefighter unions by promising to exempt their pensions from her plans to implement 401(k)-style pensions for all other government workers.
Among the unions targeted by Whitman were those representing the state’s teachers, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. She blamed them for what she describes as a failing school system.
“We have a mess on our hands in our K-12 public education system,” she said. “The teachers unions fight change every step of the way. … We’re going to have to make radical changes.”
Whitman sought to portray herself as an outsider and said the $142 million she has given her campaign to date—including a $20 million contribution that was filed with the state as the candidates debated—means she will not be beholden to special interests. She said Brown would bring more of the same budget gridlock.
“If you like the process we have in Sacramento, if you think it’s working for Californians, you should elect Jerry Brown,” she said.
Brown noted Whitman has accepted about $30 million from outside interests. Most of that is from corporations and wealthy individuals, but Whitman has also had support from the same type of public employee unions she says have Brown in their pocket.
An independent expenditure group that has received most of its funding from the Los Angeles Police Protective League has spent more than $1.2 million backing Whitman in the general election.
Brown said unions are part of state government and that any governor must learn to work with them and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. In doing so, he took a swipe at Whitman for her lack of government experience.
“I’ve been in the kitchen; she’s been in the bleachers,” he said.
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