Final Brown-Whitman Gubernatorial Debate: Did We Learn Anything New?
By cynematic on October 13, 2010
Partisans for each will tell you Brown or Whitman "won" last night's third and final debate between the California gubernatorial candidates. (There's a good summary of the debate plus video at the LA Times.) But I look at it this way: did we learn anything new about the candidates in their most heated and personal exchange yet?
On the eve of the debate, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman had to quietly loan her campaign another $20 million. That breaks all records for personal spending by a self-financed candidate. One wonders why she's willing to use up 10% of her $1.3 billion net worth ($130 million plus) on a campaign she has to come from behind to be able to win. (As of this writing, CA State Attorney General has a 3% lead over Whitman, 41% to 38%.) When you consider that there are 1.38 million voters in California, you have to think, wouldn't it be a better return on campaign expenditures to pay each person $100? Illegalities aside, I only half-kid.
But at the same time I have to admire Jerry Brown's positively skin-flinty campaign spending to achieve a better result. He's only spent a few million thus far, and leads in the polls. He's banked 40 years of results as a public servant with the people of California; it's not merely name recognition, it's his proven past ability to run the state with a surplus. Isn't that a better Return on Investment for Brown? In these tough economic times, I want a governor who knows the ins and outs of the state bureaucracy and knows where to squeeze a few more pennies out of the system as he did recently to save gang task forces formed to reduce criminal activity. Or, looking at it another way, hasn't Meg Whitman just put a price tag of $130 million plus on the value of implicit social and political capital -- in Whitman's words, the "40 years" of "your job is politics" -- that is the sum of Jerry Brown's experience in public life? Given that we've only paid Brown a public servant's salary all these years, I'd say we got more than our $130 million's worth.
Aside from her concern for the state (despite not voting), I can only assume Whitman has to spend so much to overcome her profound negatives: she's a mega-wealthy Silicon Valley gazillionaire in a time when unemployment's at it's highest rate in California and home foreclosures are endemic, she favors a capital gains tax cut that'll benefit the wealthiest Californians, and she was penny-wise and pound foolish in overlooking her housekeeper's citizenship status despite being well-equipped to pay market wages plus Social Security, FICA, and all the rest.
On the eve of the debate, Whitman also had to come out swinging given the dent that having hired an undocumented housekeeper put in her approval ratings, especially since she'd just gotten done saying in the first debate that she'd crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. It's not only Latinos who disapprove, apparently stay-at-home-moms in tony Brentwood think she did wrong by her housekeeper Nicandra Santillan, because they know and sympathize with the women who work for them as mothers and near-family members.
I think this is where Jerry Brown really held his own last night. He said he supports a guest worker program IF it has a path to citizenship, and he insists that the federal government meet its responsiblities to address immigration through comprehensive immigration reform, not states acting as rogue agents. "There's a human point of view as well as a policy point of view" on this issue, Brown said last night. He specifically mentioned deportation's problem of separating citizen children from their undocumented parents and other relatives. Given the large immigrant voting base in California, for whom one generation often has different citizenship status (green card, visa, undocumented, or naturalized) from a citizen child, this should resonate deeply for all of us -- Armenian, a wide variety of Asian Latino ethnicities, Iranian, and so on -- who recently came from different shores.
I wish Brown had also gotten in some key points about the economic boost immigrants give to the economy. It's my view if people stopped to think about the taxes non-citizens pay (really high 8-10% sales tax, for example) and the doubling effect of consumption where immigrants bring with them new markets as well as participating in mainstream ones they'd realize that "immigrant vigor" is good for America. It'd counter the usual Republican talking points, spouted by Whitman last night, that undocumented people don't pay anything into the system and instead all they do is consume resources. (Have to wonder if Republicans use that argument against the severely disabled too, who also "don't pay anything into the system" and instead "consume resources." Sheesh. And the thing about citizenship status is that you can change it, unlike a disability of some kind.) The multiplier effect of immigrant contributions to the economy--think of it this way: it's the fact that you have Sriracha hot sauce sitting next to your ketchup in the cabinet. Immigrant grocery stores, immigrant sari shops, immigrant butchers--these are all new businesses that also add to the existing economy and that those of us who've been here for generations now have new products and services available to us as well.
So kudos to Brown for highlighting the logistical futility of finding and deporting 11 million undocumented people as an immigration strategy, costing up to $230 billion. If Whitman has support from law enforcement, maybe it's because they smell job security if punitive policies targeting immigrants are put in place. Brown also touts support from police chiefs to demonstrate his "tough on crime/law enforcement" bona fides. But I wish Brown and other Democrats would counter truthy-sounding Republican talking points with more facts and figures on immigrants as employers, small business owners, investors, homeowners, and taxpayers--regardless of legal status--who all contribute to the economy.
Education Reform/Pension Reform/Public Employees
These all got linked, unfortunately, in Whitman's framing of the issue as "Big Government is bad"/"public employees don't deserve big pensions." I'm sorry to say that Jerry Brown didn't really punch his way outside this frame. Whitman smoothly announced that schoolteachers (and presumably firefighters with big pensions) were the reason why college students were facing 32% tuition hikes: "pensions are squeezing out the students." (Somehow, I think it's way more complicated than this -- state employee pensions do not come from the general fund; colleges are largely funded via targeted education grants. See Ezra Klein on this conservative talking point blaming public employee pensions for state budget deficits as it relates to New Jersey.) Whitman said, cribbing from the recently released "Waiting for Superman" documentary, that California schools are now at the bottom of all 50 states in terms of student achievement, that the California Teacher's Association union "fights change every step of the way" and that she wants to "defend the children of California."
First of all, it sounded better and more credible when an actual education administrator, DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, said it, and second of all, Whitman has a troubling tendency to pit various groups against each other when there's no real cause to. Her solution to too-high public employee pensions? First of all, exempt front-line police and firefighters, like the Los Angeles Police Department ones maligned as having $264,000-$150,000 pensions (as opposed to four-star generals in the U.S. Army who have pensions at $100,000 or so, according to Tom Brokaw). Yet, these LAPD veterans whose pricey pensions she just denounced would be exempt from Whitman's plan. Brown pointed out, these public employees comprise 25% of the public sector workforce and they get paid public sector salaries -- i.e., mostly modest, middle class pay. Brown would subject all state employees to some kind of pension benefit review. Second, Whitman's plan to "shrink" government by reducing pensions for teachers and others is really a plan to move large numbers of them to 401ks. In the past two years, those of us "lucky" to have 401ks have seen how that worked out as the bottom fell out of Wall Street, and in fact are kind of yearning for the safety and reliability of a state-guaranteed pension plan. Brown also pointed out that Whitman's proposed capital gains tax cut would reduce $5 billion in funds for schools, so how is that defending California's children, exactly? Brown asked Whitman what amount of money she personally would save if her capital gains tax cut -- enjoyed on investment income, such as the sale of eBay stock -- were to become policy? Noticeable crickets from Whitman.
On the subject of chiseling away at AB 32, California's tough greenhouse gas emissions law, Brown made a strong argument that any delay, such as the one Whitman proposes, creates regulatory uncertainty among businesses and would slow the job creation new green standards would prompt. He pointed out that Prop 23 is funded by two huge Texas oil companies afraid of any reliance on sustainable energy cutting into the oil industry's market share. Whitman takes a cagey approach to halting AB 32's implementation by supporting Prop 23 with a variation on the "slow it but don't kill it outright" approach favored by Republicans on health care, financial regulatory reform, and other legislation.
Meta-Issues of California Governance
Brown answered pragmatically to Brokaw's question about whether a repeal of Prop 13 was needed, and with it the overturn of 2/3 vote to pass a budget and elimination of the referendum process. "I'll take the world as I find it," Brown said, saying that he would like to see a 51% majority be able to pass a budget instead of 2/3 of the legislature. He would also reinstitute Pay-Go, which means no unfunded laws can be passed. Regarding the barely functional California state budget process (100 days overdue and a crap budget each time!), Brown noted he'd done eight budgets, so with him there'll be no learning on the job. Four were on time, others passed with minor delays. Two weeks after election results, if he wins he wants to call the legislature together, then take the budget on the road to cities and towns around California. This seems the right approach to me -- we've all lost track of what the budget entails and with town halls around the state we can look each other eyeball to eyeball and come to grips with the realities of what cuts will mean for each community. And maybe in doing so we can drop the pretense of wanting services we're not willing to fund. Either we fund them or we stop needing and using public infrastructure.
Whitman, by contrast, actually let corporations hide behind the skirts of "an elderly lady" whose property values would've risen beyond affordability had she not been sheltered by Prop 13's real estate property tax freeze. What she didn't mention was that "residential property tax has been shouldering two-thirds of the burden" of all property taxes -- including corporate property tax -- since Prop 13's enactment in 1978. She repeated several times that she saw herself as a "jobs creator" and saw her duty as making California hospitable to business.
I didn't have time to discuss Prop 8 (Whitman for, Brown against on 14th amendment grounds and refuses to defend), Whitman's professed affection for John McCain or Mitt Romney but NOT Sarah Palin, Brown's warm embrace of President Obama's agenda and campaign support, OR "whoregate"--but those issues seem less about creating jobs or getting a state budget in place, so I've left them aside for the time being. Though I notice many mainstream media press accounts led with those issues.
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