For just about everyone, it seemed today's gubernatorial debate was a battle of endurance -- a massive technical glitch that stopped the telecast dead in its tracks, the sweltering temperatures inside the hothouse media tent outside the auditorium, and a feisty set of exchanges between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown over the plight of Whitman's former maid.
The event here on the campus of CSU Fresno was supposed to showcase the political heft of both the Central Valley and Latino voters. And yet it's hard to escape the feeling that neither candidate made much headway on some of the issues those voters probably wanted to hear about.
The two would-be governors exchanged some pretty nasty jabs over the ex-housekeeper saga. Whitman tried time and again to get back to her talking points on other issues; Brown, when he wasn’t criticizing Whitman on a whole host of subjects, seemed to offer a ‘Remember how good I was?’ kind of rationale for why voters should send him back to the statehouse.
And in the midst of it all, the Univision-sponsored event ground to a screeching halt when some kind of audio problems thwarted the simultaneous Spanish/English translation, leaving both Brown and Whitman to spend the better part of a half hour camped out in their respective green rooms.
So, the best (or worst) of the Fresno Fisticuffs…
MAID MADNESS: "After November 2, nobody's going to be looking out for Nicky Diaz." That’s how Meg Whitman wrapped up the compassionate part of her explanation over the plight of the undocumented former family maid. And then she turned to Brown, and in her best Bill Clinton imitation, said this: “Jerry, you know you should be ashamed."
"You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there and you should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions."
Brown seemed to relish the chance to jump in the fray with his first comments on the issue all week long. After denying any involvement, or any 'housekeeper problems' of his own, the veteran Democratic pol let loose.
"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," snapped Brown.
And he wasn’t done on telling Whitman she's evading the real issue. "You've blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don't take accountability."
And then, I kid you not, the technical problems stopped the debate. Right in the heat of it all.This issue was what the pro-Brown crowd has wanted to talk about all week long. Outside of the debate hall, a union-led group showed up with mops, brooms, plungers, you name it -- a maid's tools, with some carrying signs that said, "We Believe Nicky."
The Whitman camp has spent days attempting to cast as much, or more, focus on how the story came to light as they have what actually happened. And when Whitman herself came to the press tent after the debate, I asked her whether – regardless of the source – the incident was a legitimate thing for voters to consider.
“Everything is legitimate in politics,” she said. But in the very next sentence, she seemed less than sure. “My view is this, in some ways, a sideshow, a circus, a distraction from what Californians really want to focus on.”
She may be right, but at this debate there were a lot of questions that came back to the kind of treatment, or help, undocumented immigrants should receive – and that’s really the core of the ex-maid controversy. The issue wove its way from the Arizona illegal immigration law, to what constitutes a “secure” border, to students without legal residency should have access to colleges and universities.
Time and again, Meg Whitman restated positions on which she seemed to stand on the opposite side of many in the audience, probably something tough to do given the high stakes of an essentially tied race. Whitman’s strategy clearly was to try to return to the issues of jobs, the economy, and education – and to portray these as universal issues, whether one’s a Latino or not.
AND, WHILE I’M AT IT… Jerry Brown seemed to relish the role of attacking his opponent in this event… at times, though, it almost seemed too much. Case in point: Brown decided, in the course of one rebuttal, to go from criticizing Whitman for "scapegoating" immigrants to workers laid off at eBay while Whitman was CEO, to Whitman’s record of not voting in elections.
And there were small references which, while some voters may not catch the reference, the political press no doubt did. In the above mentioned reference to scapegoating, Brown actually said this: “This is not about scapegoating immigrants, or about fighting with the people you have to work with (emphasis added). It’s about cooperation.”
DO THE RIGHT THING: Perhaps one of the strongest contrasts came through the numerous statements that showed the Whitman and Brown views of doing what’s right. When a taped viewer question asked about whether helping illegal immigrants might also help the state, Whitman said, "Illegal immigration is just that – illegal." She then went on to say that "we live in a rule of law…and we have to abide by that." Later, in an audience question about allowing undocumented immigrants to attend colleges and universities, she congratulated the woman but then rejected the idea. "Our resources are scarce," she said in referring to higher ed cuts. "I don’t think it's fair to the people who are here legally."
Brown, on the other hand, preached morality several times. "I want to treat everybody, whether they are documented or not, as God’s child," he said at the beginning of the debate. He also invoked the name of the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez in talking about his record as governor – a touchstone, no doubt, for a Latino community with deep roots in agriculture.
MEANTIME…: And in between fights over legal residency and the plights of workers, there was talk about health care (Whitman used the term "Obamacare" when deriding the national health care reform, Brown supports it); the state budget (shocking, both think the process is a mess); water issues (both preached conservation and, in ways, support for the idea of a peripheral canal – rejected by voters during Brown’s earlier time as governor); and good schools (both like charter schools, though Whitman jabbed the teachers union and Brown jabbed Whitman for jabbing him on the record of schools in Oakland.
In the end, this debate seemed to often come back to Meg Whitman proclaiming, in effect, that 'we all care about the same things'… while Jerry Brown relentlessly tried to portray Whitman as 'not one of us.' And yes, add to that the fracas of this week’s events and the larger woes facing the state… and you had a pretty entertaining event, even if the sweltering press tent and the seemingly endless tech delays left the press corps a little, well, cranky.
Postscript: So cranky, in fact, I failed to point out the oddball ending -- where the moderator asked both candidates for three things that would make their opponent a good governor. Brown had to go first, and rather than say what he wanted (They're aren't any!), he said Whitman is smart, tough, and has had "interesting" jobs. Whitman said Brown loves California, has had a long career in public service, and has a great wife in Anne Gust Brown. The responses felt especially hollow considering the angry tenor of the afternoon.