Reporting from Davis, Calif. — The candidates vying to be California's next governor had their first face-to-face debate Tuesday evening, a polite but contentious exchange in which Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown largely stuck to their campaign stump scripts, questioning each other's fitness to lead the state and accusing their opponent of being beholden to campaign contributors.
Whitman repeatedly hammered Brown for his union ties, saying he would be unable to renegotiate pension contracts after labor unions spent millions of dollars propping up his candidacy.
"He will bring people together — it will be a meeting of all of the special interests and the unions who are there collecting IOUs from the campaign they have funded," she said before 750 audience members in the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis. "I will not owe anything to anyone and I will do what is right for the people of California."
Brown countered that Whitman has received $25 million from wealthy contributors who would directly benefit from her plan to eliminate the state capital gains tax, which he said would blow a $5-billion hole in the state budget.
"This is a little bit like the kettle calling the pot black," he said. "That $5 billion comes right out of the general fund.... It's from schools, from kids, from teachers … to the most powerful and big campaign contributors."
Brown and Whitman are locked in a tight race, which is remarkable because of Whitman's record-breaking spending and Democrats' double-digit voter registration advantage in California. Interest in their first matchup was intense, with more than 130 journalists covering the event, serving outlets as far away as China, Germany and Japan. A couple hundred protesters milled outside.
The most amusing exchange occurred when a moderator noted that Brown twice ran for president when he was governor previously and asked what would prevent him from doing so again.
"Age," Brown said. Then he grinned and continued: "Hell, if I was younger, you know I'd be running again."
But "I now have a wife, I come home at night, I don't try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California. I'm going to spend more time in Sacramento and get it done," he said. "So don't worry about that; I'm in for the duration here."
Much of the exchange focused on which candidate is best prepared to fix the state's flawed government and to spur economic growth and job creation — the billionaire former corporate chief who says her business experience will help right California, or the longtime politician who says his decades in public service mean he alone can bring together the state's dysfunctional legislators.
Brown said he thought long and hard before deciding to run, and chose to do so because he believes his political experience could help the state weather its current hardships.
"I care a great deal about public service. I think it's honorable. I've lived in this state all my life, I love it, I voted here all my life," he said. And "God willing," he added, he would die in California.
Whitman responded that shaking up the status quo takes a new approach.
"My view is if we're going to change the direction of the state, we have to do it very differently," she said. "My approach is anchored in focus. I want to do three things really well to restore the faith of the people in California can have in their government." She said she wanted to cut government spending, create jobs and fix schools.
They also discussed immigration, with Brown favoring a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally and Whitman opposing. And Whitman reiterated her apology for not voting for much of her adult life.
The meeting, sponsored by Capital Public Radio, NBC's KCRA-TV in Sacramento, the Sacramento Bee and UC Davis, was the first of three debates scheduled before the November election. The next one is Saturday in Fresno.