Reporting from Santa Ana and Columbia, Calif. — Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown marked the start of Labor Day weekend — the traditional beginning of the general-election sprint — by arguing before friendly crowds Saturday that their resumes make them best equipped to fix the state's fiscal disaster and dysfunctional budgeting process.
Brown, the Democratic nominee, said his years in elected office give him the experience to bring together legislators, unions, businesses and other constituencies to make difficult choices that would reinvigorate the state's economy — while ensuring that California's neediest residents would not be left behind.
"What's most important is to bring people together to emphasize the basics, which is we don't want anyone to fall so far below they can't support their family or live a decent human life," he told an adoring crowd at a sweltering labor picnic at the Santa Ana Zoo. "It's about economics, but it's also about morality. It's also about serving the common good. It's about uniting Californians, not dividing them."
Republican nominee Whitman, speaking at a GOP picnic in Columbia State Historic Park in Northern California, said voters would decide whether she or Brown was better suited to create jobs and which candidate knows more about the economy and small businesses.
"I think I win that hands-down," she said in brief speech. "I've been in business 30 years, and I've never seen the waste, the mismanagement that goes on in Sacramento."
The two candidates are gearing up for what is sure to be a bruising general election battle. Brown surfaced only sporadically over the summer as he raised money, while Whitman saturated the airwaves with ads promoting her business experience and pummeling Brown, characterizing him as a career politician beholden to public-employee unions. Labor spent millions on Brown's behalf attacking Whitman, but the Democratic nominee has yet to make his own case to California voters about why they should support him. Brown plans to begin advertising this week.
On Saturday, fondness for the former two-term governor was palpable at the labor picnic, where families ate hot dogs and cotton candy and children romped in bounce houses as songs about the working class by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and John Mellencamp played in the background.
"You're the man, Jerry, you're the man," one man shouted as the candidate was crushed by supporters seeking pictures and autographs. Brown said his message would be competitive even if Whitman, who has already donated $104 million to her cause, puts in an additional $100 million.
"I don't think you want to see an election that's all about who can buy the most ads," he said. "It's really about who cares most about California, who understands California and who can unite the very angry and disparate elements that currently make up our state."
Brown slashed at his rival's resume, saying that in Whitman's final year at EBay, she was paid $120 million while the online auction firm's workforce was cut by 10% and its stock dropped.
"I've lived here all my life, I've voted in elections for all my life, I care about this state," he said. "I just didn't wake up nine months ago and say, 'Gee, it would be fun to be governor.' I've been governor; it isn't that much fun, I can tell you."
"This is complicated," he said. "It takes skills, not of an autocrat, not of an isolated CEO that flies around in a bubble giving orders, but rather someone on the ground, engaged with people, ordinary people, who listens to everybody to get to the conclusions."
Whitman, speaking in a yard where her campaign signs hung from the fruit trees and an "old tyme" band played in the background, described EBay as "a California success story."
"You know the statistics: from 30 people to 15,000; $4.7 million [in revenue] to $8 billion; it became the platform for small business on the Internet," she said. "And when I stepped down, if you'd invested $53 in EBay shares at the IPO, it would be worth $716 — that's a great investment for shareholders."
"I'll put my record up against Jerry Brown's record as governor, any day of the week," said the candidate, who spent an hour and a half chatting with guests who were spread out at picnic tables covered with stars-and-stripes tablecloths and sampling local Angus beef burgers and fresh picked peaches.
Whitman has signed a "taxpayer protection pledge," promising to fight all tax increases. But under questioning by reporters, she declined to take a position on Proposition 21, the November measure that would add an $18 surcharge to the state's vehicle license fee. The money would go to state parks and wildlife programs, and Californians who had paid the annual fee would have free admission to state parks such as Columbia.
During her appearance, Whitman derided Brown's statements that he could unite people to solve the state's budget crisis.
"The best indication of the future is what you have done in the past, and seven out of eight of Jerry Brown's budgets were late," Whitman said. "If it was just as easy as getting people in the room, then anyone could do this job."
Whitman said she welcomed the recent expansion of Brown's campaign schedule. "There will be more dialogue; there will be more of a chance to understand what plans he has, if any, to fix this state."
Still, Whitman showed a bit of the wear and tear when she slipped up after telling the crowd she was nearing her goal of visiting all 58 counties:
"One of the great privileges of being governor — of running for governor," she said, catching herself with a laugh, as the crowd applauded, "is we get to see California in a way that most people don't."