Whitman, Brown trade jibes in final debate

Chris Lehmann
The Upshot

In a spirited final debate, California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown traded personal jibes and wonky economic proposals in their bids to win over disaffected swing and independent voters in the home stretch of their hard-fought campaign to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Sacramento statehouse.

The debate, moderated by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw at San Rafael's Dominican University, ranged over a host of issues, from the sustainability of the Golden State's generous state employee pension plan to job creation  to the state's dysfunctional budget process. But the proceedings grew most heated during discussion of recent high-profile media controversies, concerning reports of a Brown aide using a gender-based epithet to describe Republican nominee Whitman, the onetime CEO of EBay, as well as the ongoing controversy about Whitman's employment, and then dismissal, of a household maid who had entered the United States illegally and worked for Whitman for nine years.

Both candidates vied to stress their independence from key interest groups who possess a critical stake in the nearly bankrupt state's difficult deliberations over budget and pension priorities. Whitman painted Brown, now the state's attorney general, as the captive of state pension and teachers' union leaders, who've provided the bulk of funding for his campaign. For his part, Brown claimed that the largely self-funded Whitman, who has poured more than $120 million of her personal wealth into her bid, would do the bidding of corporate interests within the state.

Brokaw didn't chafe, however, at raising the bitter personal issues that have occupied center stage in the campaign, asking Brown point blank about "someone in your campaign who called Ms. Whitman a whore," noting that such a designation was "equivalent to an African-American being called the N-word."

"I don't agree with that comparison," Brown said at the start of his reply, to a chorus of catcalls from the audience. He went on to stress that he had apologized to his opponent for the comment, but added that it was the sort of unfortunate remark that happens routinely in the heat of a campaign.

Whitman promptly brushed back that rationale. "I think everyone in California knows--and I think every woman knows--that that is offensive," she said to Brown. When Brown countered that former Gov. Pete Wilson, now an adviser to the Whitman campaign, had used the same offensive term to characterize political professionals, Whitman continued to chide the attorney general from the high ground. "You know better than that," she said. "That is a completely different thing."

Brokaw meanwhile framed Whitman's maid troubles in more explicit policy terms, citing her support for holding businesses and homes responsible for hiring on undocumented workers. "If you couldn't find out if someone in your home was undocumented or illegal," he asked, "how do you expect businesses to be able to do that?"

Whitman replied in personal terms, saying of her dismissal of her servant, Nicky Diaz, "It broke my heart, but I had to fire her, I had to let her go." She then outlined her own approach to immigration reform, beginning with a more stringent e-verify system to establish the citizenship of workers more reliably. And not surprisingly, Brown used the immigration flap to try to press for his own moral advantage, calling the maid scandal "sad" and noting that Whitman had refused to heed Diaz's pleas for legal assistance. "After working for her for nine years,  she couldn't even get her a lawyer," he said. "I can tell you that could be done" before going on to assail Whitman's support for a guest-worker system as a way of treating "Mexican workers like serfs. . . .I don't think that's human. I don't think that's right."

There was, however, one undisputed moment of public contrition in the contest--when Brokaw asked Whitman why she hadn't voted during the many years she pursued her successful private-sector career. "I am not proud of my voting record," Whitman said in reply. "It was wrong, and I apologize to the people of California." Left unspoken, of course, was the question of just how many California voters might be moved to see the value of casting their own ballots at the end of this long and bitter contest for one of the more thankless executive jobs in American politics.