Whitman, Brown clash in first governor's debate

California attorney general and democratic gubernatorial candidate (L) shakes hands with republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman before the start of a debate at UC Davis' Mondavi Center on September 28, 2010 in Davis, California.
California attorney general and democratic gubernatorial candidate (L) shakes hands with republican gubernatorial candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman before the start of a debate at UC Davis' Mondavi Center on September 28, 2010 in Davis, California. Hector Amezcua-Pool/Getty Images

The major-party candidates for governor - Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman - debated face-to-face for the first time Tuesday night. Whitman, the former head of eBay, said the state needs new leadership from outside government. Brown, who served as governor in the 1970s and '80s, said California needs just the opposite.

The debate at UC Davis offered a clash of solutions and styles.

Whitman said the way to revive the state's ailing economy is to cut taxes and regulations to retain and attract businesses.

"We've got to examine every tax, every regulation and say, ‘are we competitive to neighboring states?" Whitman said.

Brown said the answer to persistent unemployment is to foster California's green industries.

"My plan is to invest in clean energy," he said. "I want to stand firm on AB32, our climate and new energy jobs bill. I don't want to suspend it like Meg Whitman does."

That law marks another difference between the two. Whitman has argued that putting the landmark global warming law in effect would kill jobs, not create them.

The debate between the two in some ways typified Democratic and Republican approaches to governing. Brown said his opponent's tax plan would plunge the state into more debt – in part by favoring the richest Californians.

"One of these targeted tax cuts is targeted to billionaires like Miss Whitman and millionaires. It's about a $5 billion tax break."

Whitman, in turn, mocked her Democratic opponent's claim that he could persuade people to work together in the state capital.

"It will be a meeting of all the special interests and the unions who are there to collect their IOU's from the campaign that they have funded."

Brown replied that he'd stand up to his union allies, adding that he'd call on them to increase pension contributions and raise the retirement age for state employees. Whitman said she'd go further, and seek to impose 401(k) plans on newer employees.

Whitman also spoke about cutting the welfare rolls, even as more people are relying on state help in the bad economy.

On immigration, Brown said he supported a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. Whitman said she did not.

On the death penalty, Brown said he opposed it but would uphold the law that makes it legal, if elected. Whitman supports the death penalty.

For most of her life, Whitman showed no interest in government; she rarely even voted. A journalist who participated in the debate asked her about that.

"Well, first of all, I am not proud of my voting record," she said. "Tonight I apologize to everyone in California. It was not the right thing to do and no one is more embarrassed by it than me."

The 54-year-old businesswoman argued that her lack of political participation and inexperience in government is a reason people should vote for her for governor.

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. We have to challenge the status quo in Sacramento," Whitman said.

Whitman’s plunged $120 million of her fortune into the race. Her self-funding, she said, would give her independence.

Brown may have pulled off the best line of the evening when he responded to a question about whether he'd focus on the governor's job more than he did during his first term, when he spent time running for president. The 72-year-old said he's too old to run for president, and he’s more settled these days.

"I now have a wife and I would come home at night," he said. "I don't try to close down the bars of Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California."

Much of the debate focused on life experience. Whitman said she is the outsider with a “spine of steel” to stand up to the unions. Brown, who currently serves as attorney general, said California's already tested a political outsider by electing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I mean we've tried this business of the inexperienced private sector person coming in with a spine of steel, and they get flummoxed by the shark-infested waters of Sacramento," said Brown. "I won't."

"Putting Jerry Brown in charge of negotiating with the labor unions around pensions, around how many people we have in this state government," said Whitman, "is like putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank. The fact is, nothing will get done."

The two are scheduled to debate again Saturday in Fresno.

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