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Who Won Jerry Brown-Meg Whitman Debate?


California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown squared off for their first debate last night. We discuss what was learned about each candidate last night, and the key issues that will decide the race for governor.

Maureen Cavanaugh (Host): Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman have been virtually tied in the polls in their race for governor. So, last night's debate could be crucial to start moving undecided voters in one direction or the other. The two candidates took questions for an hour last night onstage at UC Davis. The debate was broadcast


Who do you support for California governor?

  • Jerry Brown

  • Meg Whitman


367 total votes. (This poll is now closed.)

live here on KPBS-FM. This morning we'll be analyzing the answers and the presentations of Whitman and Brown. I’d like to introduce my guests. Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen. Can’t wait to get into this.

CAVANAUGH: And Gary Gray is professor of political science and international affairs at USD. Good morning, Gary. Thanks for coming in.

GARY GRAY (Professor, Political Science and International Affairs, University of San Diego): Thanks for inviting me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation, especially undecided voters. Did last night’s debate help you make up your mind about who’ll get your vote for governor? You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, or you can go online at Well, let’s start out with what we learned about the candidates last night. Let’s start with Republican Meg Whitman. Gloria, what do you think you got out of her presentation?

PENNER: Well, first of all, we have to figure out what it is that we wanted to get out of it, and a lot of people wanted to have the feeling that they would like to get to know her a little bit better. They get her ads but they’re not quite sure they know her. And so that was an important point. And what we learned is what I think we already knew, that she sticks to her message no matter what. Her message was jobs, government efficiency and schools, and she makes no apology for spending almost a hundred and twenty million dollars, a record U.S. expense, on a political campaign. She says it gives her financial independence from special interests so that’s a good thing, and that she follows the Republican line in many regards, especially in immigration, and that she can attack. For example, when she said electing Jerry Brown would be like having Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank, that was an attack and it got your attention.

CAVANAUGH: And, Gary, what was your take on Meg Whitman?

GRAY: Well, I think that’s exactly – exactly right. People really don’t know her very effectively other than from ads. And one of the questions was can people picture her as a governor, and I think that that’s one of the tasks that she needed to perform. I think she actually did that quite well. I jotted down some comments on her general presentational style and these were the kind of adjectives: organized, on message, pleasant, authoritative, you know, and not nasty. So I think that she came across probably to a lot of people who don’t know Meg Whitman at all, came across as somebody, well, this is somebody who could be governor.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from Meg Whitman during the debate last night. She repeatedly accused Jerry Brown of being beholden to the state’s labor unions.

MEG WHITMAN (Republican Candidate, Governor, State of California): My view is he will bring people together after he’s elected governor and it will be a meeting of all the special interests and the unions who are there to collect their IOUs from the campaign that they have funded.

CAVANAUGH: That was Meg Whitman from the debate last night between she and Jerry Brown. And so I would imagine Californians, or at least Californians of a certain age, know Jerry Brown a little bit better than Meg Whitman. Did we learn anything about him in last night’s debate?

PENNER: Well, I guess I fit into that certain age category, Maureen, but what we learned is that he’s still the same independent guy but this time he is somewhat mellowed by the reality of his age, and that he has no other political ambitions, he says, beyond that of being governor. You know, he ran twice for president while he was governor of the state. And he thinks that his experience and his knowledge of the history of California, especially the way California’s budget process goes, is an advantage and that it trumps anything that Meg Whitman has to offer. He’s still a fighter. He didn’t look weakened, he didn’t look fragile. He still had that fighting stance. And he defends his ad, you know, one of the toughest ads was in which he says her nose grows like Pinocchio, and he defended that. The question is she has a plan. It’s really pretty clear. Does he? He’s likeable. Will that be enough?

CAVANAUGH: And, Gary, did you write a list of adjectives for former Governor Brown?

GRAY: Actually, I did.


GRAY: So where Meg was on message, he was freewheeling. He was spontaneous. He was witty. He had the best lines, easily, in the evening, and they were spontaneous lines. Meg Whitman’s one zinger about Dracula and the blood bank, that is in terms of having Jerry Brown negotiate with labor unions was like having Dracula in charge of the blood bank, that comment sounded planned. It was scripted. Almost all of the responses that Jerry Brown gave were off the cuff, you know, and I think that – that is his style, that, I think, probably indicates his command of the experience that he’s got. So I think in that sense, he was interesting. If you’re going to sit around, if you’re going to use the old George Bush kind of response in who would you rather have a beer with, I think people would probably rather have a beer with Jerry Brown after the debate.

CAVANAUGH: We have a clip from Jerry Brown. While Meg Whitman accused Brown of being beholden to special interests and unions, Brown said Whitman just wants to help out her billionaire buddies.

JERRY BROWN (Democratic Candidate, Governor, State of California): One of these targeted tax cuts is targeted to billionaires like Ms. Whitman and millionaires. It’s about a $5 billion tax break that’ll go to the richest people in California. 82% goes to those making over $500,000 and where will a lot of that money come from? Our schools.

CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the things that Meg Whitman had to overcome during the debate was the fact that she is something of a political newcomer and there was a consensus, at least between the two of you, that she seemed to do that. One of the things Jerry Brown has to get over is concerns about his age. Do you think he did that last night, Gary?

GRAY: He did that superbly. That was one of those examples of off the cuff when he was asked that question about whether he would pursue anything else, as he had in the past, running for president, etcetera. And his response, you know, why wouldn’t you do this? His response was age. He immediately diffused the age question, I think, in several different ways. He joked about it, he was very effective when he talked about the fact that he’d been working in public careers so long that he’d overfunded his own pension.

CAVANAUGH: Right, yeah.

GRAY: And that if the entire state, you know, we wouldn’t have any pension problem if everybody worked as long as he did and that if we reelected him – I mean, we elected him in the first place, he would be 76 when he, you know, and then if he got reelected, he’d be 80 and we wouldn’t owe him virtually any pension at all. So I think he was very effective at saying over and over, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I can do it again.

CAVANAUGH: He did say that a lot.

PENNER: He did, and the interesting part is that he used that to spin how he would deal with the pension issue. He did say he’s the best pension buy the government has seen but that as far as pensions were concerned, he would negotiate, yes, of course. He would raise ages so you’d have to be older in order to retire. He would raise contributions, which I thought was interesting. And he agreed that there have been lots of abuses of the pension system. He commented on the civil fraud that he brought against Bell, remember with all the…

CAVANAUGH: Bell, California.

PENNER: Bell, California, exactly. And that he’d really like to see a salary commission. You know, of course, in a way, that puts him into a category, people who like commissions to do more studies in order to get things done. So he mentioned commission. I flinched a little bit because I say that that’s going to sort of peg him as, oh, somebody who really likes to do commissions. And as far as Whitman was concerned, I mean, she raised the question: How can you negotiate with labor? You can’t be dependent on public employees. But she did agree with Brown that the retirement age needed to go up, that it should go from 55 to 65, that you increase the vesting periods, increase the contributions, and so she went just about the same path as Brown on the pensions, negotiate.

CAVANAUGH: And we are taking your calls, especially those of undecided voters, to get your reaction to the debate last night at 1-888-895-5727. You can also go online, Sahail (sp) is calling from San Diego. Sahail, welcome to These Days.

SAHAIL (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning.

SAHAIL: Yeah, the debate did allow me to make my decision. We – I believe Californians had tried out someone who is new and unexperienced in governing. I voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger after Davis and that whole thing was a debacle. As we know, it got nothing done. We’re completely in gridlock. And we can’t afford to have someone as inexperienced as Meg Whitman back in the governor’s chair. I do believe Mr. Brown when he touts his experience, and Ms. Whitman, her dismal voting record really said it all.


SAHAIL: Basically, she is just in it for special interests and using her own money to buy the election.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that debate…


CAVANAUGH: …really, really decided you, Sahail. Thank you…

SAHAIL: Yeah, so…

CAVANAUGH: …so much for calling. And I know that, Gloria, in hearing from local Democrat and Republican Party – Democratic and Republican Party heads, there was some speculation that this debate or this series of debates is probably going to decide the election, at least in San Diego County.

PENNER: Well, the local head of the Democratic Party said that I think San Diego looks like a battleground county. It’s almost split dead even. This is Jess Durfee, he’s the chair of the Democratic Party in San Diego. And he thinks the decline-to-state, or some people call them the independent, voters will make the decision, that they’re going to be the drivers of who wins the election, which I think is really interesting. His sense is that the business credentials that Meg Whitman is running on—of course he’s the Democrat—is the same sort of resume that the current governor ran on and that didn’t work. And that’s what Sahail was saying, basically the same thing.

CAVANAUGH: And what does – you also spoke with the local Republican leader.

PENNER: I did. I spoke to Tony Krvaric who is the chair of the local Republican Party. And he said this debate is the best thing that can happen. You’re going to see a contrast between past and future. He represents the past, he’s going to be stuck in decades of policies that killed jobs, and she’s the new dynamic, prosperous California. People are angry. Jobs are scarce. And so that’s his point, that it’s the economy that’s going to drive who wins in this. And certainly if jobs weren’t the issue that they were, one would say Jerry Brown certainly has a leg up but with jobs the issue and with Meg Whitman touting her credentials as a business person who knows how to create jobs, if people buy that I think she’s going to get more votes.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Gloria Penner and Professor Gary Gray, and we’re talking about last night’s debate between Democratic hope – Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, both of whom want to become the next governor of the State of California. Gary, as you said, this was a really very sort of courteous debate. No one started to act out or scream in any way. I’m wondering, though, were you surprised by anything you heard?

GRAY: Probably not really surprised. I think I was pleasantly surprised at the usefulness of the debate. I think a lot of topics were gotten at and I think that for the most part people really would come away, if they watched that debate, with a fairly clear distinction between these two candidates. Meg Whitman really says, you know, I’m the business person, I’m business friendly, that’s what we need here in California. She adopted basically the standard Republican approach. And Jerry Brown said that’s exactly it, she’s George Bush playbook, you know, back again. And I’m for investing in California’s people and she’s for tax cuts for the powerful. So I think you did have a fairly clear idea that there are fundamental differences in the approach, which is what you would hope to get out of a debate…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

GRAY: …and not just gotcha moments and not just trying to trip up the other person. But I think you really did get – I think it did serve the broader public interest.

PENNER: I did – I did hear a couple of things I was surprised about. Jerry Brown was clear about not liking the death penalty. He came right out and he said it. And, of course, she used that to remind everybody that he was responsible for appointing Rose Bird, who, at one point, was Chief Justice—I think she was recalled—who never, ever saw a death penalty case actually go to execution. But he was clear, I don’t like the death penalty. I did not know that Howard Jarvis, the father of Proposition 13, ever supported Jerry Brown but Brown said that Jarvis’ support came because Brown made Proposition 13 work. So there were two surprises for me. And with Meg Whitman, there was something very real when she said that rising university fees break her heart. I mean, I never thought I’d hear ‘break her heart’ from Meg Whitman on television. She always seemed too buttoned-up for that. But when it came to what would you do about rolling back tuitions, she went back to her former self and said I would leave it up to the chancellors.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, or go online, Aaron is calling from El Cajon. Good morning, Aaron. Welcome to These Days.

AARON (Caller, El Cajon): Morning.


AARON: Hi. I was just calling because I hadn’t decided before the debate and in my opinion it was swayed when Brown had discussed AB-32…


AARON: …and about climate change and carbon emissions and, in my opinion, California is great because we take a leadership stance on that and we don’t have the position that you can’t have a good economy and a good environment in the same time.


AARON: And apparently Meg Whitman did not receive that and that she would like to repeal that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you for that comment. I believe, actually, on the record, both of the candidates are against repeal of the AB-32, is that right?

PENNER: Right, yes. She favors Proposition 23, which, I believe, would – No, no, she doesn’t. She came out and she said, no, I am not for Proposition 23, which would suspend 32…


PENNER: …until the employment rate – the unemployment rate in California was 5.5 for four quarters. So, yeah, but she came against that. So both of them are saying let’s keep 32. Jerry Brown, of course, says that good environmental understandings will help to create jobs, that green jobs are the way to go. She responded by saying only 3% of the jobs in California are associated with green, the other 97% are all other kinds of businesses. So there’s a clarity right there.


GRAY: Yeah, I think…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, go ahead.

GRAY: Make one small change there. Actually, Meg Whitman’s position, she does oppose 23 but she does want to suspend AB-32, that is the climate change legislation…

CAVANAUGH: For at least a year, I think.

GRAY: …for at least a year.

PENNER: Right.

GRAY: And so I think that’s the point. And one other just quick comment on that because I think that was one thing that Jerry Brown did to try to bridge this question about am I the old guy, career politician. Because he said, yes, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve been around but also I’m the person with the vision for the future, I’m the one that wants to invest in the new economy. So I think that was his attempt to say, you know, I can see green jobs, environmental change, as beneficial to California, and my opponent here wants to delay us in being able to get on with that.

CAVANAUGH: Did anyone get the sense that we were seeing a kinder, gentler Meg Whitman on the subject of immigration last night? Considering how fiercely fought that particular topic was in the gubernatorial debates that – the gubernatorial – GOP gubernatorial primary debates between Whitman and Poizner.

PENNER: Well, I had – to me it was very clear. Meg Whitman said she doesn’t see a path to legalization of undocumented workers. She agrees that we need to secure our borders—everybody agrees with that—and to hold employers accountable. She would eliminate sanctuary cities, cities that she say (sic) allow illegal immigrants to come and live freely and not have to worry about being deported. And she also supports the guest worker program. So this seems to me sort of right down the Republican line.


GRAY: No, I agree. I think the tone, however, and I think probably what you’re commenting on, the tone was very mellow. It wasn’t like we’re going after these people. But she was apparently willing to use California funds to enforce this and, of course, Jerry Brown’s position was this is a federal issue, we need comprehensive energy – I mean, comprehensive immigration reform and it needs to take place at the federal level and we shouldn’t be using state resources to enforce this. So I think there was a fairly clear difference but it wasn’t one that initiated any sparks.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Let’s take another call. David is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, David, and welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, Oceanside): Hi. Thank you. I have maybe a different take. I think the debate shows what a pathetic job the news media does in this state. These guest – the questionnaires (sic) just, you know, they would ask a question, they wouldn’t get an answer to their question and then they’d go on. I mean, I have no axe to grind so I’m just using an example. Meg Whitman was asked about how she’s going to fix – get this budget going. This budget, the one that’s stuck now, currently. And she says, well, we have to create jobs.


DAVID: Well, what has that got to do with right now? We have a problem. And this could be not just her, both of them, the news media never followed up. I just want to say one quick thing, too, this is an example, Maureen, of how bad they do. You would not be asking that question about it seemed that Meg changes her thing, her opinion on immigration, because you would know she stuck billboards in Spanish up in the desert that, if chose, she plays – again, I’m not just picking her because I don’t like either of them. But she just flip-flops. That’s her style. The news media in this state does not ask and follow up on these politicians.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that comment, David. Was that either of your impressions…

PENNER: Well, Dave…

CAVANAUGH: …of the moderators last night?

PENNER: I thought David was interesting. He doesn’t like Meg Whitman, he doesn’t like Jerry Brown, and he doesn’t like the news media, so I’d love to know what he does like. Yes, I’m – I don’t want to be negative about my colleagues who ask the questions but it’s true. There weren’t the follow- ups that I think you would’ve done. I certainly would’ve done, and especially on that question in terms of what would you do to get the budget out of stalemate. Now, the other one that I was interested in was – one of the questions was on campaign finance, you know, what kind of reforms might there be in campaign finance and she basically said it’s not a priority with her, and she went back to her message of three: jobs, government efficiency and schools.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that’s part of the coaching that the politicians go through, is they answer the question that they want to answer instead of the one they’re being asked. Did you hear evidence of that last night, Gary?

GRAY: Yes. I think part of the problem is the general format that’s followed in these debates. They covered the budget, gridlock, economy, public pensions, campaign finance, immigration, death penalty, campaign ads and probably several more, and the age of Jerry Brown. So, you know, that’s too many topics and 90 second and 30 second rebuttals, I think that’s part of the reason that this was polite, if you will, because there wasn’t a lot of pressing to follow up on some of these questions. I would say that the panel actually did do – Amy Chance, I think, from the Sacramento Bee, did follow up a time or two. One of the questions I remember saying, you know, your elimination of the factory tax, Meg Whitman, will take away revenue from local governments and so how are you going to plug that hole? So there were a few times where they did follow up. And I think a big part of that problem is the general format that they set up for these debates, which is we’re going to cover the whole waterfront in one hour debate.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, we kind of have to wrap things up, amazingly, but I wonder from this debate, from what you’ve seen, how do you think the three other debates that we expect in the next two weeks are going to go? What kind of strengths and weaknesses do you think the candidates saw in each other than we might see exploited in these additional debates?

PENNER: Well, they left out a whole area, which, I’m sure, is going to be covered soon, and those are social issues. Because Meg Whitman is a proponent of Proposition 8 and they never did discuss same sex marriage. So I’m sure that we’re going to hear more about that. We might also hear more of the so-called social issues such as gun control in California, maybe prayer in the schools and that kind of thing. You know, right now, the polls show that women are tied for Brown and for Whitman and usually women vote Democratic. So it’s going to be really interesting to see whether there’s going to be any reach out to women in all of this, and the same with Latinos. And we also need to watch where the Tea Party, which isn’t as strong in California, we’re – Well, of course, they’re backing Whitman, 80% to 2%, but how powerful they become in this.

CAVANAUGH: And the future of these debates, what should we look for, Gary?

GRAY: Well, I think I’ll be looking to see if they push a few of these questions a little further. For example, Jerry Brown raised the question, despite the fact that Meg Whitman is mostly self-financing her campaign at an extraordinary level, that she also had significant contributions from large contributors. And so this wasn’t an issue of entirely self-financed, I’m totally independent, nobody else can influence me. So the question about campaign finance that Meg Whitman really did – said wasn’t a priority, that was a point that I think he pushed on. So the question about, you know, who do each of these candidates fundamentally represent in terms of both the policies they’re going to pursue and in terms of who their supporters are, I think that’s a question. And I think the social issues were totally ignored so I think those will probably be some that we would hope, in the future, that they’ll follow up on.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both, Gary Gray, professor of Political Science and International Affairs at USD, and Gloria Penner, our political correspondent here at KPBS. Thanks so much.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon.

GRAY: Yeah, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post a comment, please go online, I want to let everyone know the next gubernatorial debate is set for October 2nd in Fresno. Coming up, the ethics of manipulating climate, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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