By Dan Morain, Senior editor The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Mar. 28, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1E

Linda Ronstadt’s greatest hits played on a stereo in the upstairs Thayer apartment. A powder-blue Plymouth Satellite was parked on the street below.

Capitol denizens past and present filed in to the N Street building, having paid $2,500 to $10,000 to eat sushi and other Asian food, drink wine and get reacquainted with the featured attraction.

Where, exactly, was that attraction?

Jerry Brown, rarely one to show up on time, appeared 31 minutes past the appointed 5 p.m. start of the fundraiser thrown for him at the apartment he rented for $275 a month, back when he tooled around in the 1974 Plymouth and dated one of the hottest acts of the time.

“This is about the future, not the past,” the once and perhaps future governor said, accommodating photographers by standing by the Plymouth, a relic on loan for the evening from the California Auto Museum.

For better or worse, Brown is the lone Democrat in the race for governor. Other Democrats pulled out, knowing they could not beat a politician who has held office for four decades and is the son of a governor who held office decades earlier.

Billionaire Republican Meg Whitman, a name unknown to most voters a few months ago, has been using her wealth to carry out the threat made by one of her aides to run her Republican rival through a “wood chipper.” With a $27 million ad blitz, Whitman has opened a 50-point lead over Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, polls show. Poizner vows to close the gap.

Voter attitudes could change by the June primary. But as it stands, the race will come down to Brown and Whitman.

Some pundits lament the choice. Some seem bored by the prospect of a Brown-Whitman contest. Say what you may, there is one attraction about this prospective contest – it offers voters a clear choice.

Insider vs. outsider. Lifelong politician against an ex-chief executive who until recently didn’t much care about voting. One has vetoed bills and had lawmakers override a veto. The other this past week naively talked about how she would task “legislative teams” to implement her vision, as if the Legislature is something other than a co-equal branch of government.

The differences all were on display in the past few days. As campaign finance reports showed, Whitman is doing her part to end the recession, spending $47 million so far, with plans to spend three times that sum or more between now and November.

Brown has spent $144,000, and has enough money in the bank for maybe three weeks’ worth of television commercials.

Brown travels aboard Southwest Airlines, paying reduced fares accorded to a man of his advanced years, 71. Whitman flies aboard charter jets.

Brown’s campaign manager, Steve Glazer, volunteered for five months and now receives $15,000 a month. Whitman pays her campaign manager, Jillian Hasner, $30,000 a month.

She pays a consultant $100,000 a month, a second $90,000 a month, and a third $36,000 a month. There are many others who receive more than Glazer.

Money aside, the two have very different styles, as was apparent in separate appearances this week before police chiefs and sheriffs at the downtown Sheraton Grand.

Whitman showed up on time and delivered a speech that shareholders and Toastmasters would appreciate. She employed topic sentences, made concise points and offered conclusions, all in 11 minutes, 30 seconds. No applause.

Brown wandered in late, without an entourage or script, bounced from topic to topic, occasionally lost his thread, and got fiery when talking about Wall Street greed and politicians who make scapegoats out of poor people.

He made some odd detours, like pointing out that 36 years has passed since his first stint as governor. That’s like “the equivalent if someone ran for governor at the beginning of World War I and decided to run again for governor at the beginning of the Korean War.”

Despite that rambling spiel, the crowd applauded when he concluded, 20 minutes later.

Whitman had urged the cops to pick up a copy of her glossy policy paper. The campaign counts it at 48 pages. Take away the pictures of Whitman, charts and fluff and the brochure is, charitably, 20 pages.

Brown is a walking policy brief. He reminded the chiefs that as governor, he signed legislation that dramatically altered the old indeterminate prison-sentencing system in which felons could spend little time in prison, or a lifetime, depending on parole boards’ subjective assessments of whether they were dangerous.

Attorney General Brown lamented the unintended consequences of the determinate-sentencing system he helped create, in which inmates are released at the end of set prison terms, no matter the threat they pose. There must be changes, he said.

Whitman sees no need for a “sentencing commission” to review prison terms currently in place, and made a point of saying she supports the death penalty. Brown didn’t raise the topic but is a lifelong capital punishment opponent.

Former Oakland Mayor Brown told the law enforcement officials about overseeing a police department in a city where there are “real cops” and “real criminals,” and how there have been nine murders in a five-block radius around his Oakland loft.

Whitman did not talk about her digs, which are in Atherton, the leafy peninsula town where many Silicon Valley multimillionaires have their fenced mansions.

Whitman cites her business experience, telling police her time as chief executive officer at eBay taught her much about law enforcement and cybercrime. Brown dismisses the experience of “What do they call them? CEOs.”

The two take different tones about California and its future. Long Island native Whitman offers a long list of states she seems to think are managing better than California – Utah, Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, where she has a second home.

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