Republican Neel Kashkari used a debate Thursday to punch repeatedly at Gov. Jerry Brown’s priorities, while the Democratic governor parried with a defense of his record and, at one point, a dismissive wave of his hand.
The 60-minute encounter, the only scheduled debate in an otherwise low-profile campaign, provided a rare airing of two sharply different visions of post-recession California.
Brown heralded the transformation of the state’s financial condition from budget deficits when he took office four years ago to surpluses today, with increased funding for schools and social services, but also additional reserves.
Kashkari, seeking to undermine Brown’s narrative of a mended state, placed blame for California’s high poverty and unemployment rates on the governor. He also faulted Brown for a public school system that is among the worst-performing by national math and reading standards.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, remains little-known to California’s electorate, and many viewers first saw him as he prodded Brown on the economy, education, high-speed rail and legislation banning plastic bags.
After Brown said he likely will sign a bill prohibiting so-called single-use plastic bags in California, Kashkari dismissed the measure as trivial, on par with legislation allowing dogs to dine with their owners at restaurants and a measure seeking to reduce contact in youth football.
Kashkari said emphatically that he would not sign the bill.
Nothing in the candidates’ meeting appeared likely to reshape the course of the campaign, with the third-term governor far ahead in fundraising and public opinion polls.
Brown dismissed Kashkari as an unserious candidate with “vague” proposals for solving the state’s problems and questioned at the start of the debate whether even Kashkari believed he could overcome the odds.
“You don’t really have much expectation to win,” Brown said.
Yet the persistence of Kashkari’s attacks appeared to exasperate the governor as the debate wore on. He sighed, waved Kashkari off and said, “I feel like I’m getting a sales pitch.”
California, Brown said, is far better off than it was four years ago.
“When I went up there I rolled up my sleeves, I started cutting that budget, and the Legislature gave me one I didn’t think was tough enough,” Brown said, referring to a budget veto. “We started doing the right cuts and making the right decisions.”
“All the jobs we lost in the recession from the Wall Street meltdown we got back,” Brown added. “Our schools – instead of laying off 30,000 people, we are now increasing the funding available for all kids.”
The debate forced Brown for the first time to defend his appeal of a closely watched court ruling that found California’s teacher dismissal rules unconstitutional, an emerging controversy Brown previously refused to discuss.
Kashkari accused Brown of siding with “the union bosses who funded your campaigns” in appealing a Los Angeles Superior Court decision that rules for teacher tenure and dismissal keep inferior teachers in classrooms, depriving students of their constitutional right to a quality education.
Brown called the attack false. He suggested he was appealing for a procedural reason, saying “the constitution requires the Court of Appeal to invalidate the laws of California.”
“Do I think there’s a problem in the inner cities of California with 1.6 million kids who speak no English at home, or the kids who are homeless and in poverty?” Brown said. “Yes, I do.”
Kashkari, a 41-year-old former investment banker, gleefully engaged Brown on issues of class, portraying Brown, the son of a governor, as the product of a powerful political family who is now “out of touch.”
“I am running for governor because I want to rebuild the middle class in California,” Kashkari said. “I think Gov. Brown means well, but his 40 years in government have left him out of touch with the struggles of working families.”
“My dad wasn’t governor,” Kashkari said later. “My parents were immigrants. I was a middle-class kid.”
Brown countered forcefully. After Kashkari criticized Brown for his support of California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, Brown was asked if the project was indeed the “crazy train” that Kashkari called it. Brown said, “I think he’s more familiar with the gravy train,” taking the opportunity to criticize Kashkari for his role running the federal government bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“What a salesman,” Brown said at another point in the debate. “I guess you learned that on Wall Street ...”
Kashkari capitalized on news this week that California’s campaign to land a Tesla Motors Inc. battery factory had failed, with a site in Nevada selected instead.
Brown said his administration “fought hard for Tesla, but Tesla wanted a massive cash upfront payment that I don’t think would be fair to the taxpayers of California.”
Tying the Tesla effort to broader concerns about California’s regulatory climate, Kashkari said Brown signed a “special deal” for the Sacramento Kings to accelerate the arena-construction process and that all businesses should have the ability to streamline projects.
“Instead of just giving it to those who are politically connected, who can hire high-priced lobbyists – like the Sacramento Kings or like some of the big businesses that he’s given this deal to, he tried to give it to Tesla – why don’t we actually adopt that new standard and make it available to everyone?” Kashkari said. “Big businesses, medium-sized businesses, small businesses, farms, anybody who wants to invest in California.”
The debate, the only encounter Brown would agree to before Election Day, came relatively early in the campaign and coincided with the opening night of the National Football League season. That timing served to dampen expectations for widespread viewership, as did the absence of a live audience for the in-studio debate at The California Channel’s downtown Sacramento studios.
Kashkari had pressed Brown to debate him 10 times, echoing a call Brown made in his campaign against Meg Whitman four years ago. Kashkari settled for the one debate Brown agreed to but remained frustrated by a process that favored Brown.
Kashkari advisers argued for days with debate organizers about whether Kashkari could stand, arguing that he had a bad back and would be more comfortable standing. Debate organizers resisted, citing production concerns, and in an email late Wednesday they threatened to cancel the debate if Kashkari did not sit for the duration of the event.
The debate was jointly produced by KQED, the Los Angeles Times, The California Channel and Telemundo California. Asked if he would participate in another debate, Brown said the Thursday night exchange “exposed the differences” between the candidates.