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5 Candidates Tackle Issues in Spirited Debate

Voters hear views across the political spectrum on taxation and other topics. Davis appears, mixing contrition with self-defense.

September 04, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Five candidates for governor in the recall election differed Wednesday over taxes, the death penalty and campaign spending in a spirited debate that offered voters a widely varied set of solutions to the most contentious issues facing California.

The forum, the first debate of the campaign, began with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis appearing separately from the candidates seeking to replace him. Davis vigorously condemned the effort to drive him from office, alternately sounding notes of frustration and contrition.

If given the chance, Davis said, he would do a better job of reaching out to Californians in the last three years of his term by holding town hall meetings across the state.

"The biggest thing I would change is to stay connected to the people of this state," he said.

One major candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner, skipped the event. His absence was noted less than 30 seconds into the session when Dennis Richmond of KTVU-TV, the moderator, introduced the participants and said the actor had decided "he would not speak directly to the voters of California at this time."

For the most part, however, the candidates ignored their absentee opponent, who sought his own platform earlier in the day with a speech at Cal State Long Beach, where he was hit with an egg. Instead, they focused on answering the more than 20 questions put to them, staking out their partisan differences and striking broad campaign themes from the start.

For several of the candidates, the debate, which was broadcast statewide, provided a measure of public attention that their campaigns would otherwise have struggled to achieve.

For voters, the presence of a wide range of candidates -- from Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock on the right to Arianna Huffington, the commentator, and Peter Camejo of the Green Party on the left -- provided views often missing from debates that include only two major party candidates.

McClintock, for instance, advocated dismantling the state's regulation of coastal development, while Camejo called for abandoning the state's three-strikes sentencing law and Huffington advocated scrapping plans to build a new state prison in Delano.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only major Democrat among the candidates to replace Davis, emphasized the role government must play in upholding the "social contract" with its citizens and regulating business. Bustamante repeated a line he has used often, that he is not running against Davis but against the other candidates on the second part of the recall ballot. But he did not take the opportunity to stress his opposition to the recall, saying only that Davis would make his own arguments.

Asked how he would distinguish himself from Davis, Bustamante cited a point in the electricity crisis of 2001 when the state's major utilities said they would turn off the lights if Sacramento would not approve rate increases. "I think I'd have called their bluff," he said.

Asked after the debate about Bustamante's comment, Davis said: "Let me tell you why I didn't -- because we have about 500,000 people in this state that are hooked up to some life-saving machine at home -- an iron lung, a dialysis machine -- and we don't have their addresses. So if you call their bluff and the lights go out ... you're going to find some dead people on your hands.

"I'm not going to play Russian roulette with the people of this state," he said.

Bustamante was thrown on the defensive at one point when he was asked about pledges by Indian tribes that operate casinos in the state to contribute more than $2 million to his campaign.

He stressed his long relationship with the tribes, noting that he had visited their reservations when they had no money, and added that there was little he could do as governor to affect their operations. Most regulations on Indian gambling are set by the federal government and voter-approved initiatives, he said.

Besides, Bustamante said, the tribal donations were simply "leveling the playing field" against his more affluent opponents. "I don't have that kind of wealth," he said.

Huffington sharply disagreed.

The contributions were "nothing but legalized bribery," she said.

"Tell me how you really feel," Bustamante replied, drawing laughter from the audience.

McClintock also criticized Bustamante, accusing him of exploiting a loophole in the state's campaign finance law.

Bustamante is raising contributions though a campaign committee that is exempt from current restrictions on donations because it was set up during a previous election cycle. McClintock said he had a similar committee but chose not to raise money in the same way. Even if Bustamante's practice is legal, he said, "it's certainly on the shady side of the law."

One of the most illuminating parts of the debate was a rapid-fire session in which candidates were limited to 15-second responses on a wide variety of topics, including gay rights, medical marijuana and gun control.

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