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Democrats urge Brown to apologize over remark about Whitman

Supporters say that the term inadvertently captured by a voice mail machine is inappropriate even in the salty language of politics.

October 09, 2010|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

Democratic allies of Jerry Brown said Friday that he should offer a direct apology for someone in his campaign calling Republican rival Meg Whitman a "whore" in a discussion of whether to create an ad alleging that she had protected law enforcement pensions in order to win police endorsements in the race for governor.

"It's inappropriate; it's just wrong," said Stephanie Schriock, the leader of EMILY'S List, a Democratic group dedicated to electing pro-choice women, on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers." Such words "just shouldn't be used anywhere by anyone, period. It is just not what our democracy is about. It's unfortunate to hear it in any place."

Such rough talk in politics or business is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising. In August, Alaska GOP Senate nominee Joe Miller compared a third-party bid by sitting Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to prostitution.

But the recording of the slur against Whitman, made during a Brown campaign discussion inadvertently taped by a voice mail machine, pushed it into the national spotlight and changed the discourse of the gubernatorial race, which had been focused for more than a week on the revelation that Whitman employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper.

On Thursday, The Times reported that the Los Angeles Police Protective League provided an audio recording of Brown calling the union to discuss an endorsement. Brown apparently failed to hang up, and then had a conversation with his aides discussing strategy in response to potential police endorsements for Whitman. Whitman had earlier exempted public safety officials from key parts of her pension reform plan — at the same time she said Brown would bend to labor's desires on the issue.

An unidentified voice can be heard saying, "What about saying she's a whore?"

Within hours, a spokesman for Brown said the candidate was not the speaker, but the campaign does not know who it was. The candidate's campaign manager issued a lukewarm apology, saying the discussion was "a private conversation" but that "at times our language was salty. We apologize to Ms. Whitman and anyone who may have been offended."

The Whitman campaign called it an "unforgiveable smear," but the candidate herself made no public comment.

Brown has yet to address the matter, and his spokesman said the campaign did not plan to issue any other statement beyond its apology Thursday. But for good measure it also released an endorsement of Brown by the California branch of the National Organization for Women, which cited his record on women's issues and said pointedly that "actions speak louder than words."

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said that's not good enough.

"It's one thing to use salty language, it's another thing to use the word 'whore,' " she said, adding that it was unlikely that the same word would have been used to describe a male candidate.

"The longer this statement is out there and it's ambiguous who said it or if it was him, that hurts him," she said. Brown would be better served "if he came out right now — him, not his campaign surrogates — and said, 'Look, I don't believe this, I don't think that's the case, I'd never think this is acceptable, it's overt sexism.' "

Whitman has been aggressively courting women voters and has said their votes are critical to her chances. While some thought the dustup would hurt Brown's standing among them, others said the electorate knows that politics has an ugly side.

"I think voters realize that politicians and their aides often use harsh language about their opponents in private. This particular word is unfortunate, but it's not exactly unheard of," said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official. "One thing it does do is it enables Meg Whitman to go on the offense and stop talking about the housekeeper."

Dan Newman, a Democratic strategist, said he was hopeful that voters would appreciate the underlying message — that even in private Brown was unwilling to soften his pension reform plan to gain political endorsements. "I heard him essentially saying he's going to stick to his principles instead of bending to an interest group to earn their endorsement," Newman said.

But the remark disconcerted some of Brown's most fervent supporters.

"I am a woman and I am supporting Jerry Brown. I fundamentally disagree with everything Meg Whitman stands for and I will be voting for Jerry Brown," Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. "However it is never acceptable for anyone, particularly a man, to call another woman a whore and particularly someone of Meg Whitman's stature."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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