Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman had their first face-to-face debate in the California governor's race Tuesday night, and they agreed on only two things — that California is dysfunctional, and that electing their opponent would continue the state's downhill slide.
The California budget is three months overdue, unemployment is above 12 percent and most voters think the state is on the wrong track.
Hector Amezcua/Associated Press
Brown, during Tuesday's debate.
Whitman, a former eBay CEO, said what California needs to solve its problems is some business smarts. Want to create jobs? Improve the business climate.
"We've got to examine every tax, every regulation, and say, 'Are we competitive to neighboring states?'," Whitman said.
Whitman proposes cutting a number of taxes, including capital gains.
Jerry Brown, a former governor, said that would punch a huge hole in the budget and called the idea a giveaway for rich people — like Whitman.
"I have a very specific plan, and it's not to give a $5 billion tax break to myself, much less to the billionaires and millionaires," Brown said.
NPR's Ken Rudin rates the race for California governor a "toss-up." See his analysis and how other political observers view the race at NPR's Election Scorecard.
Whitman's fortune — estimated at more than $1 billion — has become one of the biggest stories of this race. She has spent $119 million of her own money — a record for a U.S. political campaign — but she insisted she's not trying to buy the election.
"I have invested a lot of my own money in this campaign," Whitman said. "I don't think you can buy elections. I think Californians are too smart."
And spending her own money, Whitman argued, makes her independent of the special interests who usually contribute to political campaigns — like the public employee unions who have supported her opponent.
But Brown insisted that he'd be independent of union interests now, as he was when he served as governor 30 years ago.
"As far as unions, I'm the only governor that ever vetoed the pay raises for all public employees," Brown said. "I did it once. I did it twice. I'll do it again if I have to."
Hector Amezcua/Associated Press
Whitman, during Tuesday night's debate.
Opinion polls show the race is a dead heat.
And while the term "career politician" is a handicap in many campaigns this year, Brown embraces his four-decade resume: former governor, former mayor of Oakland and currently state attorney general.
To Whitman, it just means Brown has had more time than most to be corrupted by special interests.
"The labor unions and Jerry Brown have been joined at the hip for 40 years," Whitman charged. "Putting Jerry Brown in charge of negotiating with the labor unions around pensions, around how many people we have in state government, is like putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank."
As combative as the debate was, Whitman remained poised, cheerful and always hit her talking points — whether or not she was asked about them.
Brown was looser, with self-deprecating wit — like his response when asked if he could assure Californians that if elected, he'd focus on being governor and not run for president as he did twice when he was governor.
The 72-year-old Brown's answer: He's too old now.
"One more thing — I now have a wife, and I'd come home at night," Brown added. "I don't try to close down the bars of Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California. So don't worry about that. I'm in for the duration."
Whitman was not amused. Electing Brown as governor again, she suggested, would do nothing to turn California around.
"Einstein had it right: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result," Whitman added.
But Brown warned that a business executive with no political experience is also something California voters tried before — when they elected their current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Right now, fewer than 30 percent of Californians think he's doing a good job.