Jerry and Meg, Once More

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Pool Photo: Sacramento Bee

Tonight's third and final gubernatorial debate comes just 21 days before one of the two candidates on stage is chosen by what everyone admits is a grumpy electorate.

Which begs the question: what do voters want the candidates to talk about? And will anything said tonight actually shed some light on how either Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown intend to govern?

The event at Dominican University in Marin County gets underway at 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on all NBC stations in the state (for you radio fans, KQED and many of our affiliate stations via The California Report are also carrying it live).

The format seems to be the loosest so far, with moderator Tom Brokaw having what sounds like a free hand to steer the discussion any which way for any length of time.

It's hard to imagine the latest fracas not coming up -- the audiotape of a conversation between Brown and his campaign team where, in the midst of a discussion about endorsements and policy, someone can be heard referring to Whitman as a "whore" for her protection of public safety pension benefits at the same time she was being endorsed by some in law enforcement.

(An aside: one wonders whether those demanding to know how the ex-housekeeper story surfaced are equally demanding to know how this audiotape made its way into the hands of the media.)

But this is also the kind of topic that could veer the entire event off into angry accusations and topics far afield from the issues facing the state -- the economy, jobs, a state budget in disarray. And so whether Brokaw brings it up, or one of the candidates, one would imagine it will be much less emphasized than the tone of the press coverage of late.

Given the tenor of the television ad war being waged by the two candidates, one helpful topic for many voters might be a substantive discussion, at long last, of Jerry Brown's time as both governor of California and, later, as mayor of Oakland. On the former, the Whitman camp continues to hammer Brown on the issue of taxes, state spending, and Proposition 13... while Brown continues to insist he was the most frugal chief executive since, well, time began.

As many of us have written, there are elements of truth and distortion on both sides; Whitman's assertions of wild state spending sprees fail to acknowledge that much of the money in question was spent to replace the tax dollars lost when Prop 13 was enacted. Meantime, Brown's insistence that he both "created" the surplus of cash that was spent doesn't seem to square with several accounts of a governor who, as Brown has admitted, wasn't fully dialed in back then to enough of the big issues.

And once they settle the past, perhaps the two could talk about the future... starting with the immediate future: given the budget that was enacted last week, what's the first, second, third thing you do when elected? Start meeting with legislative leaders as the governor-elect? Convene the best and brightest economists and develop your own forecast on where the economy and government revenues are headed? Or... what? Candidates often shun questions that are hypothetical. Here's one that's most decidedly real.

Brown has been especially vague on how his budget views would be applied to the current mess. Meantime, Whitman's pledges (trim the state workforce, root out waste, etc.) have largely been rooted in four year proposals -- not what she'd do in year 1.

And perhaps it would also be illuminating to hear some specific things Brown or Whitman would do differently than the guy they seek to replace, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now that the incumbent governor's official duties are starting to wane, might either candidate explain what will change come January? Voters have some pretty detailed knowledge about Schwarzenegger... other than, say, the approach to climate change issues, shouldn't they know what will, or will not, change?

Stay tuned for tweets, blogging, radio, and more from Dominican U. It promises to be an interesting evening... exactly three weeks from election day.

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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.

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