Resisting the obvious Beauty and the Beast jokes won't be easy.
California voters have a choice to make on November 2nd, and after tonight's debate, Jerry Brown cast himself as serene Beauty but his demeanor was more beastly than ever. I could hardly believe my eyes. I remember meeting him during a 1992 presidential primary stop, where he stood in a park near a river and waxed poetic about the Constitution.
I was already a registered Republican but politics was always on my mind -- and here was a guy running for the highest office. He gave off no alpha-male vibe, as Bill Clinton did. His record in Oakland and as governor wasn't up to my family's standards for leadership.
Tonight was a surprise. He brought some heat, in a real way. He stood his ground -- even when he refused to take any responsibility, he sounded personally convinced. He touted facts, figures, union endorsements and his long record of service. As mayor, as Governor, and what interested me most: his time as Attorney General, with particular focus on death penalty cases.
To refute Whitman's incisive, repeated charges that Brown has a 40-year record of being soft on crime, he replied that he's defended the use of the death penalty more than anyone in California history, and "perhaps more than anyone in the country." Really, Jerry? How many death sentences have been carried out in California while he's been attorney general? What about his time as governor? Hyperbole is a fact of political life, but this was something special. Paging Governor Rick Perry, paging Governor Rick Perry for a body count in Texas.
Somewhere a fact checker is howling with laughter.
Brown's facts were off with regard to Meg Whitman too. He attacked her record, mis-characterized her positions. He was unsportsmanlike more than once. He barely disguised contempt for Meg Whitman and it was palpable.
He revealed a sense of entitlement to the office; after all, he's the Democratic nominee and this is California. Never mind the high rate of unemployment, never mind that California is joked about as the most bankrupt state in the union. It's his seat. Meg Whitman has no intention of conceding with less than a month to go. She's in striking distance and has a solid shot at winning. Whatever bump Jerry Brown gets from President Obama's visit this weekend gives him -- he'll have to ride it for three weeks.
Whitman is a Republican darling who stood her ground and reiterated her support of Mitt Romney in 2008 despite prodding by moderator and legendary journalist Tom Brokaw to embrace Sarah Palin, who will be in California for fundraisers this week.
Whitman didn't just bring heat tonight, she brought a blowtorch and extra fuel. She was serene, confident and all-business. She was composed as Jerry Brown offered an insincere apology for his campaign staff referring to her as a whore. He offered his opinion that it was probably illegal for them to share the voicemail his staff left for a police union. Begs the question: Is he going to open an investigation into that charge, since he's the chief law enforcement officer? Or can we all agree that they implied consent by leaving the message in the first place?
Whitman reigned in her exasperation, stood for women and "took it like a man." Her only mistake was being flippant when Brown asked her to condemn former Governor Pete Wilson's 1995 comment about Members of Congress as whores. She noted the situations were totally different, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
Her staff should have briefed her. Because the obvious, more potent response would have been "Mr. Brown, equating what you and your staff said about me this week with what someone who endorses me said fifteen years ago isn't only absurd, it's further proof that you aren't capable of leading this state honestly. You can't be counted on to do the right thing."
Brown still came out the loser here. Calling a woman a whore is abhorrent, unconscionable. You can't trust someone who engages in and encourages slurs. He condoned the behavior at the time. Voters must remember a golden rule: what a politician does when you aren't looking defines him, or her. Brown embraced the derogatory, demeaning and sexist slur. He joked about it, when nobody was looking. That's not a man worthy of being called "The Honorable" because he isn't.
Whitman was realistic and brought specific plans. She was positive and dignified. Her approach was straightforward. Times are tough, and there will be "shared sacrifices." She laid out her plans to overhaul the structure of public employee pensions while honoring commitments to current recipients. She aggressively addressed the control unions have over policy makers in Sacramento by virtue of their spending $300 million to influence elections in recent years. She was not shy about her own fortune, and self-funding to the tune of $120+ million. She adroitly confirmed that she has independence from the unions, while Brown is beholden to them.
On education, there was more talk of union control. Brown insisted he would be tough on unions. But he also touted their endorsement of him. Whitman brought facts and figures that every parent understands: of every dollar spent on education, 60 cents goes to the classroom and 40 cents goes to administration, bureaucracy and labyrinthine rules that prevent California's children from getting the best education available.
Overall, I give Jerry Brown a C+. His base will be thrilled with his full-throated endorsement of President Obama, his healthcare plan, and the overall good job he's doing. It's definitely California because other than John Kitzhaber in Oregon, (who is also a recycled former Governor seeking renewed glory) a message endorsing President Obama's spending and leadership habits wouldn't resonate with many folks right now. Even George Soros is referring to a Republican "avalanche."
Whitman earned a solid B+ for offering real plans, no excuses, and behaving like, dare I say it, a lady - when Jerry Brown chose to re-victimize her. Whitman was concise, charming, prepared and possessed the confidence she earned by building eBay, one of America's greatest success stories.
As a political observer, as a woman, and as a mother, Whitman strikes me as the sort of woman I'd like to be friends with.
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