The two top candidates running for California lieutenant governor traded accusations of pampering criminal illegal immigrants and slashing public school funding in a debate Thursday that added a dash of drama to what has otherwise been a little-noted race.
Democrat Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, set the tone at the outset when he blamed his opponent, GOP Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, for casting the key vote for a state budget that produced the "biggest tax increase in California history and the biggest education cuts in California history."
"My opponent has been there 12 years up in Sacramento, and we've seen a tripling of [college] fees," Newsom said. "We've seen devastating cuts. And I've seen them firsthand, as mayor of a city that had to find ways to offset those cuts from the state; $8.6 million last year in education cuts."
Maldonado, a three-term state senator from Santa Maria who was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and assumed office in April, responded by calling Newsom a hypocrite, saying the Democrat had campaigned in favor of the same budget agreement during his brief run for governor last year.
"My opponent likes to say that it was Abel Maldonado that did this. But when he was campaigning for governor, he was out there campaigning for the budget," he said. "You can't have it both ways in this business. You've got to show leadership."
The 60-minute debate was held at the headquarters of the Silicon Valley high-tech firm NetApp in Sunnyvale and followed an equally confrontational radio debate in late September.
Time after time, Maldonado turned his answers toward San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policies that he said had protected illegal immigrants during Newsom's time as mayor.
Maldonado pointed to the 2008 deaths in San Francisco of Tony Bologna and his two sons, who were allegedly shot by an illegal immigrant and reputed gang member who had been arrested as a juvenile and released.
"They have a sanctuary city policy where they let convicted illegal aliens loose on the street," Maldonado said, adding that such policies had undercut national immigration reform efforts.
Throughout the debate, Maldonado portrayed himself as a Republican moderate with the political skills to mend Sacramento's fractious partisanship. As evidence, he held up two main pieces of legislation — his pushing of Proposition 14, which created an "open primary" law for the state and his decision a year ago to break away from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature and vote for the budget backed by the Democrats and the governor.
Proposition 14 changed voting laws for primaries so that voters can select candidates from any party and the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, will face off in the general election.
Newsom sought to rebut that image of moderation, accusing Maldonado of "siding with George Bush" in opposing stem cell research — an accusation Maldonado later denied.
The Democrat also noted that his GOP rival had voted against allowing domestic partnerships in California and against the state's landmark law to combat global warming, known as AB 32.
"I don't know [if] that's a very moderate record," Newsom said.
Seeking to contrast Maldonado's record on global warming with his own, Newsom said he had helped put in place environmental regulations to curtail greenhouse gas emissions in San Francisco, adding that those policies had worked as a catalyst to expand the city's economy.
"If you believe in jobs, if you believe in getting this economy moving again, if you believe in California's best days not being behind us but in front of us, you believe in a low-carbon, green-growth strategy," Newsom said.
Maldonado said he had voted against AB 32 because the legislation was a "shell" that left critical decisions on curtailing greenhouse gases to an unelected state air resources board that was not accountable to voters.
Newsom also attacked Maldonado on the budget, saying his vote had violated an earlier pledge not to raise taxes.
"The fact is, he signed a pledge saying he wouldn't support a tax increase and supported the biggest tax increase in California history and the biggest education cuts in California history. And we've all been on the receiving end of that," Newsom said. By contrast, he said, as mayor he had brought universal healthcare and preschool to San Francisco.
Newsom has a substantial financial edge in the campaign — he has $1.2 million socked away compared with Maldonado's $456,548 — along with a much higher, although controversial, political profile throughout California.
The San Francisco mayor landed in the national spotlight in 2004 when he began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the city. That subject continues to define his image for many Californians. A Field Poll in September showed Newsom had a four percentage-point lead among likely voters. But it also found that 41% of those questioned had an unfavorable view of him, and 29% of voters had a favorable view. The same poll found that 17% viewed Maldonado unfavorably, with 36% having a favorable view.