In a blistering final debate, Democratic candidate for governor Jerry Brown apologized to his Republican counterpart Meg Whitman on Tuesday for a slur directed at her by an associate, an apology that Whitman did not explicitly accept as she cast his campaign as insulting to all Californians.
Brown continued to insist that Whitman was seeking office to enrich wealthy Californians such as herself, while she derided Brown as a "same old same old" politician who helped lead California into its present straits and said she represented a fresh start for the beleaguered state.
The 60-minute contest, held at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, crackled with disagreements on a host of issues, but the sharpest jousting came on the dispute that has roiled the campaign in recent days — an inadvertent recording of a Brown strategy session in which an unidentified person suggests portraying Whitman as a "whore" for creating a loophole in her pension plan to appeal to public safety unions that were endorsing her in the governor's race.
Moderator Tom Brokaw, the former NBC anchorman, told Brown that the word represents, to many women, the same sort of insult that "the N-word" represents to African Americans.
Brown at first said he did not agree with the comparison — a statement that drew an audible reproach from the crowd — and sought to question the timing of the release of the "5-week-old private conversation … with garbled transmission."
"I will say the campaign apologized promptly and I'm affirming that apology tonight," he said.
"You're repeating it to Ms. Whitman?" Brokaw asked.
"Yes, I am," Brown said. "It's unfortunate. I'm sorry it happened. I apologize."
Whitman, however, told Brown that Californians "deserve better than slurs and personal attacks."
"I think every Californian, and especially women, know exactly what's going on here and that is a deeply offensive term to women," she said.
Brown asked Whitman if she had similarly chastised her campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson, who used the same term in a criticism of Congress.
"You know better than that, Jerry; that is a completely different thing," she said, a retort that drew another rumble of reaction from the crowd. "The fact that you are defending your campaign for a slur and a personal attack on me — it's not befitting of California, it's not befitting of the office that you are running for."
Brown apologized a third time, and said that the utterance "does not represent anything other than things that happen in campaigns." But, he pointedly added, Whitman had received police endorsements after exempting safety officials from key parts of her pension reform plan — which he had refused to do.
"You got the endorsement of that union, I didn't, because they said I'd be too tough on unions and public employee pensions, and I'll take that," Brown said.
"I got that endorsement because that union knows that I will be tough on crime," Whitman replied. "And Jerry Brown has a 40-year record of being soft on crime."
The debate which aired on NBC stations, followed a tumultuous several weeks for the candidates, who faced controversies over the slur by the unidentified Brown associate and revelations that Whitman had employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years.
The latter issue came up only briefly toward the end of the debate, with Whitman asserting that her experience showed the need for a better verification system and Brown calling for a "human" response to handling the millions of illegal immigrants now in the country.
Apart from the confrontation over the taped conversation, the debate followed the contours of the long race for governor, now three weeks away from a decision. Brown cast himself as a candidate who could bring to the governor's office an experienced sense of how the state functions. Whitman cast herself as the outsider with what she called a "common sense" approach.
Brown tried to strike at her intentions early, though, when he turned a question about the impact of Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax relief measure, into an indictment of Whitman's plan to eradicate the state's capital gains tax.
"One thing I wouldn't do to compound our budget deficit and our tax unfairness, I wouldn't totally eliminate the capitals gains tax, which my opponent Meg Whitman wants to do," Brown said. "That capital gains tax benefits mostly millionaires and billionaires and would add five to 10 billion to our budget deficit, and a lot of that money would come from public schools and I just don't believe that's right."
Whitman said Brown was "just wrong" and cast the tax cut as one that would lead to "more jobs, more business, more tax revenue."