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3 Democrats Clash Sharply in 1st Gubernatorial Debate : Politics: Garamendi attacks Brown, who takes an above-the-fray stance. Hayden stresses campaign reform.

May 24, 1994|BILL STALL | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In their first debate, the three Democratic candidates for governor clashed sharply Monday night on a range of issues, with the most pointed exchanges between Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

From the outset, Garamendi vigorously attacked Brown, the front-runner in the polls in the June 7 primary. During his opening comments, he turned to face her and questioned her sharply on several points, including her acceptance of campaign contributions from municipal finance houses that do business with the state treasurer.

On that matter, and on other issues throughout the hourlong session broadcast only in the Sacramento area, Garamendi likened Brown's responses to a current television ad run by the Hertz auto rental firm. When a character with a problem car is asked if he rented from Hertz, he despondently replies: "Not exactly."

Late in the debate, when Brown said she had the toughest ethics rules in the history of the treasurer's office, Garamendi retorted: "There you go again. It's, 'Not exactly.' "

Throughout most of the hour, Brown adopted an above-the-fray front-runner's stance: ignoring Garamendi and aiming her campaign ammunition at Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

But finally, after Garamendi raised the campaign ethics issues again, Brown shot back: "John, all three of your charges are false. You do not know what you are talking about."

State records supported Garamendi's contention, however, that Brown did receive large amounts of contributions from New York bond houses until last June, when she declared that she would no longer accept such funds.

It was the third candidate, state Sen. Tom Hayden of Santa Monica, who offered the sharpest rebuttal to Garamendi by accusing him of accepting, as insurance commissioner, campaign contributions from outside law firms that had been hired to do business for Garamendi's office. Garamendi has refused to accept contributions from insurance companies, but has taken money from the law firms, state reports indicate.

Campaign reform is the cornerstone of Hayden's campaign and he pushed that issue during the debate, but he also made a number of points that set him apart from Brown and Garamendi.

For instance, on the "three strikes, you're out" law recently approved by the Legislature and contained in an initiative on the June ballot, Hayden said, "I think 'three strikes' is fiscal madness." He said the 25-years-to-life terms should be meted out only to violent felons, not someone who, for example, is caught forging a check as a third offense.

Garamendi generally agreed, adding that the state could save money and open prison space by putting nonviolent felons in boot camps. Brown also supports boot camps, but did not take advantage of the opportunity to push her case Monday night.

Brown said she supports the current law and the proposed initiative as needed "to send a message that there are consequences that flow from individual actions in society."

Repeatedly brushing aside criticisms, Brown never directly answered the questions that Garamendi put to her at the opening of the debate. But she came prepared with some of her own charges, citing state auditor reports of mismanagement in the insurance commissioner's office during Garamendi's 3 1/2 years on the job. Garamendi replied that all the disparities had been corrected.

In an unprecedented debate-a-day lineup, the three will meet again in San Francisco this evening under the sponsorship of the Commonwealth Club. The 90-minute session beginning at 6 p.m. will be carried live on public television station KCET Channel 28 in the Los Angeles area.

The third, and probably final, session will be on radio in Los Angeles on Wednesday, on the Michael Jackson talk show on station KABC.

Garamendi's aggressiveness Monday night was no surprise. Trailing Brown by as much as 20 points in recent public opinion polls, he needs to bring some drama to the race to focus attention on him and to raise doubts in Democratic voters' minds about Brown.

Hayden is regarded as the outsider, with relatively little support in the polls and little chance of winning. He noted at the outset that his candidacy has been described in many ways this year.

In general, the candidates came across much as they have campaigned throughout the spring: Brown cool, often talking in broad terms, sometimes technically phrased, focusing on Wilson as if her victory June 7 is taken for granted.

Garamendi presented himself as a populist and talked about how he had worked other people's jobs in each of the 58 counties since early January. He said that reform of health, welfare and prison programs in California is fundamental to bringing the state budget under control.

Hayden, presumably the one with the least to lose, seemed to enjoy the attention he got by being treated as an equal at the debate table.

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