California_Governor_Debate.jpgState Attorney General Jerry Brown and Republican candidate Meg Whitman clashed in their first gubernatorial debate Tuesday night over who voters can trust to get a difficult job done.

The candidates adhered to their respective narratives: Whitman as the outsider who would bring private-sector sensibilities to Sacramento and Brown as the 40-year civil servant who knows how to navigate state politics.

Each argued his or her individual style was necessary to break through a political stalemate that seems to have become endemic to California — an issue experts say could resonate most with voters.

Brown, who previously served as governor of California from 1975 to 1983, argued that state government is more complicated, more frustrating, and more of a team effort than business is. He said the governor’s office would be his last position as an elected official, making him beholden not to special interests but to what’s best for the state.

Whitman, a billionaire who formerly headed eBay, said her approach to governing would be to focus on doing three things well: create jobs, improve government efficiency and get the state’s school systems back in order. Whitman has poured a record $119 million of her own money into her campaign.

The debate was held at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis and touched on jobs, water, the death penalty, climate change policy, education funding and state employee pension plans.

The next governor, however, faces significant limits to what he or she can accomplish, Santa Clara University political science professor James Cottrill said.

The difficulty arises in part because two-thirds majorities are needed to pass the state budget or raise taxes, and thousands of pages of legislation have been passed by ballot initiatives.

“I think the voters are a little bit worn out,” Cottrill said. “Most Californians view government as ineffective, and they want a sign that somebody is going to be able to go there and get something done.”

The candidates were asked early in the debate how they would deliver a budget on time and break through the partisan politics that plague Sacramento. This year’s budget was a record 90 days late as of today.

“First we have to get Californians back to work,” Whitman said. “We have to attack the cost side of government, streamline, and use technology to do more with less.”

She also advocated, “attacking welfare,” starting on the budget sooner, and switching to a two-year budget cycle.

“We’re constantly having our back against a wall and not being able to think more than three or six months out,” she said.

Brown too advocated downsizing departmental budgets by about 18 percent and having an early, transparent state budget process.

“I know many of these legislators have no idea what’s going on in the budget,” he said, explaining that four or five “top legislators” craft the budget with the governor behind closed doors.

Whitman also said she would make California more business friendly by creating a committee that would compete for jobs. She would roll back factory taxes and start-up taxes, she said, and enact policies similar to ones in Texas that streamline applications processes.

“Texas has the best business climate in the country,” she said. “There’s an ombudsman in every industry. There are low taxes, and most importantly, they break through that red tape.”

She did not specify how she would work with what is likely to be a primarily Democratic legislature, particularly when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had little success doing so, Cottrill said.

Brown blasted the proposed tax cuts.

“That’s $17 billion in tax breaks for companies,” he said. “Put that on top of the $19 billion (current budget shortfall) and you’ve got a hell of a deficit.”

Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University, said he thought the debate was a “good exchange” in which neither candidate had any major gaffes or game-changing moments.

He said Whitman had made great strides in her ability to “hold her own,” while Brown showed spunk, vitality and a sense of humor. Both candidates showed contrition at times and were strident at times, he said.

Whitman in particular apologized for her sparse voting record, but she refused to back down on an attack ad featuring former President Bill Clinton criticizing Brown’s tax record in 1992. Independent fact-check groups have lambasted the ad’s accuracy.

“You can view that one of two ways,” Gerston said. “Either she’s stubborn or she has spine.”

He added, though, that he was surprised Whitman hadn’t backed off the ad–especially after the man who originally wrote the report cited in it later said he used incorrect data to draw his conclusions.

Whitman also was too quick to get to her talking points at times, Gerston said, adding that the first debate is always the most important because the candidates are less savvy and more likely to make mistakes.

“This debate illustrates the extent to which this is a close race,” he said.

Janna Brancolini, Bay City News

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