Debate Grazes the Future, Focuses on Now

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AP/Rich Pedroncelli

SAN RAFAEL -- Jerry Brown hates Meg Whitman's plan to eliminate the state's capital gains tax. Meg Whitman hates the state's teachers union. And somewhere in between, the voters will have to decide whether either candidate speaks to them about the future of the Golden State.

Tonight's hourlong debate was on the picturesque campus of Dominican University -- a serene setting at odds with the rough-and-tumble nature of a gubernatorial race on the homestretch and very close. While a few obvious exchanges will make the nightly news, the real question: what's the lasting impact of this event -- if any -- on who wins November 2?

We'll have more for radio tomorrow on The California Report, and likely more observations after some time for reflection. But a few highlights before the lights dim here in Dominican's media center.

Brokaw Touches a Lot of Bases: The iconic anchorman knew he'd be judged closely by those who live and breathe California politics on whether he asked questions that matter. It seems he did, and then some. Of course, it's another question whether the candidates actually answered those questions. The best example seemed to come right at the outset, where Brokaw asked back-to-back questions that hinted what a lot of people believe: Californians have unrealistic expectations about how to fix the state, and probably need to be leveled with that there's sacrifice on the horizon.

The response from Brown and Whitman was... well, not quite tough love. Whitman, who went first, mostly stated the obvious ("the California dream is broken") while then pivoting to her call for welfare reform. That last part may leave some wondering: what do those more fortunate have to sacrifice? Brown, who also stated the obvious ("We don't like to face tough choices"), then talked about the perils of 'scapegoating' people... a not-too-subtle return, it seemed to the ex-housekeeper saga from two weeks ago. Hard to call either candidate the victor on this one, but give credit to Brokaw for putting several good issues on the table.

The Audiotape: It's tough to know how much bandwith to give this one -- the sparring over Brown's campaign aide and the word "whore" -- but here's the bottom line: for those who wanted Jerry Brown to apologize and then suggest everyone move on, they didn't get it. The Democratic nominee, who did ultimately face Whitman and utter the 'S word,' did so only after a long answer about the legality of recording phone conversations, the date on which the comment was uttered, Pete Wilson, the garbled nature of the recording... you get the picture. Until prompted by Brokaw, the best Brown could offer was an odd affirmation of his campaign's original written statement: "I affirm that apology tonight."

But in fairness, Whitman may have been better served by letting Brown's awkward response stand on its own. Instead, she seemed intent on restating the obvious. From there, for everyone's sake, it should have ended. While Brown tried to bring it back to the issue that generated the phone call -- public safety pensions -- the exchange had al
ready been sealed on every reporter's notebook in the media room.

The Pol & The Rich Lady: That's pretty much how each candidate characterized the other over...and over...and over. And those are familiar caricatures -- rooted, no doubt, in reality but often distorted by the campaign. Meg Whitman returned time and again to Jerry Brown's long public life; she chastised him for what she said was a "half answer" on Proposition 13 reform and his promise to slash the budget of the governor's personal office, and seemed to relish the multiple chances to talk about his support from public employee unions.

Jerry Brown relished his own attack: Whitman as a rich taxpayer out to further enrich herself through her call for eliminating the state's capital gains tax. "Ms. Whitman, I'd like to ask you, how much money will you save?" asked Brown. He returned to that theme time and again, even taking aim at reporters afterwards for not asking the question enough.

The reality is that these may be slightly new ways to package this fight, but the voters are almost certainly aware that Brown has been around a while, and that Whitman is rich. Neither reality, if the polls are right, is currently a disqualification.

Unleash The CTA? If Whitman and her team has decided that picking a fight with the California Teachers Association helps their 'the unions hate me' narrative, they certainly added some fuel to that fire tonight. The CTA, easily one of the most powerful forces in state politics, was the focal point of a blistering attack by Whitman at one point in tonight's debate. "We are starving the students to feed the bureaucracy," she said in one of her CTA jabs. Brown avoided the fight, by backing both "regular" and charter schools in that same part of the debate. Whitman tried to make the case that it's the union she dislikes, not actual teachers. We'll see if the CTA responds.

And those are just a few of tonight's highlights. These two candidates are locked in a tight, and ugly, battle with just 20 days left until the contest is decided. As the debate ended, it became known that Whitman wrote her campaign a new $20 million check -- the info just appeared on the official records. That's going to be included in an awful lot of debate wrap-up news stories over the next day, not exactly what the Whitman team needs to hear right now. Meantime, Brown seemed perturbed in the post-debate news conference with more audiotape questions, and cut the event short.

Neither move helps squelch issues that, in some ways, suck the oxygen out of the things on which each campaign wants to focus.

But that's politics.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • ace

    Attacking the teachers’ union over money spent on the education bureaucracy? That makes no sense to me.

    I doubt most folks think teachers are overpaid or that we spend too much money on schools.

  • R. Welch

    One area ‘the beauracracy’, top heavy upper level administrative personnel, superintendents and those with 6 figure incomes, healthcare, and retirement packages, and benefits….On the other side, you have idealistic teachers that cannot reach their students and are fraught with becoming social workers on the job, to deal with children’s behavior problems, and the non- involvement of families. This alone deters many from staying in the field. Balancing the budget on the backs of teachers on overload is unacceptable, but so is the retention system of marginal teachers. The road to higher pay grades should be based on effective teaching and tenure, not tenure alone.