Billionaire Meg Whitman In First CA-Gov Debate: ‘I Don’t Think You Can Buy Elections’

September 28, 2010 6:53 p.m.

Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown clashed tonight in their first gubernatorial debate, with Brown charging Whitman only wanted to help billionaires like herself and Whitman slamming Brown as beholden to public employee unions. The two sparred for an hour in a debate that focused almost exclusively on the Golden State’s economy and how they’d fix gridlock in Sacramento.

Moderators of the debate asked Whitman about charges she’d tried to “buy” California votes by spending more than $119 million so far, and with five weeks still to go before election day. The governor’s race in California is usually battled on the television airwaves, and Whitman’s ads have been bombarding voters for months.

“I don’t think you can buy elections, I think Californians are too smart,” Whitman said. “What you can do is get your message out.”Whitman said she’d “invested” her own money — most earned through her tenure as an eBay executive — to maintain her own “independence” should she win. Then Whitman attempted to pin a label on Brown that she’d worked to affix to his candidacy throughout the debate, telling the moderators she’s up against “a pretty big set of entrenched interests” since public employee and other labor unions support Brown for governor.

Earlier in the debate, she told voters Brown wouldn’t be able to fix the state’s epic budget woes because he’d enter office and find “all the special interests and the unions there to collect their IOUs from the campaign they have funded.”

Whitman said she’d apply targeted tax cuts to stimulate manufacturing, eliminate the factory tax, bring Silicon Valley-style management to help out in Sacramento.

Brown, the state’s attorney general, said several times said the Republican’s proposed tax cuts would go to “billionaires and millionaires,” adding, “like Ms. Whitman.”

He said her plan to eliminate the state’s capital gains tax would help rich people by taking money away from “schools, kids and teachers.”

Brown, 72, made several self-deprecating jokes about his age, prompting several bouts of laughter from the debate audience.

“I’m the best pension buy the state has ever seen,” he said, promising he’d wait to collect what he’s earned for his many years serving government until he turns 76.

Brown said he’d cut 15 to 20 percent from the governor’s office budget, then tell legislators it’s “your turn next.” He complained about the arcane process for crafting the budget where a handful of lawmakers meet with the government, calling for more transparency. He boasted that when he served as governor, he’d been on time with nearly all of his budgets.

“I know how to do it, I have the willpower, I have the independence,” Brown said.

When Whitman, 54, said Brown’s administration in the 1970s had squandered a $6 billion surplus to become a $1 billion deficit, the former governor balked.

The surplus “didn’t come from tooth fairy,” he said. “I created that damn thing.”

“Nobody is tougher with a buck than I am,” Brown said. Moderators asked if he’d roll back or keep the fee hikes on the University of California and California State University systems, and he said he’d “do the best I can to hold down the fees,” but added, “We’re in a tough bind and we’re all going to have to sacrifice.”

Whitman answered the same question by saying she’d get advice about the fees from the school chancellors.

Whitman outlined her plan to stand up to those powerful employee unions, saying she’d increase the retirement age from 55 to 65, increase the vesting periods. Her strategy for getting that done is negotiations first, then taking it to a ballot initiative if that doesn’t work.

“The next governor of California needs to have a spine of steel,” Whitman said. “There will be tremendous pushback from the unions, they do not want to change, but we have to change.”

Brown fired back that California already has had one of those types of candidates.

“We’ve tried this business of an inexperienced, private-sector person with a spine of steel,” Brown said, never once mentioning Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name.

The debate touched briefly on the death penalty and California’s crowded Death Row and lengthy appeals process. Whitman went after Brown’s record more recently as mayor of Oakland, claiming he’d harmed the city’s education system and charging he “has a long, 40-year record of being quite liberal on crime.”

As we’ve reported, Whitman has made a particular play for Latino voters by touting her opposition to Arizona’s immigration law. Tonight she stressed she does not support a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants. She offered the standard Republican line that she wants to secure the borders and enforce laws on the books.

Brown said he supports a federal comprehensive immigration bill that includes a pathway to citizenship. He also said any illegal immigrant who breaks the law should be deported.

Whitman recently has taken some heat from the San Francisco Chronicle for being the first candidate to turn down an invitation to visit with the newspaper’s editorial board.

The TPM Poll Average of this race has Whitman leading 45.9% to Brown 44.8%.
Our coverage of the race is here.

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