By Jack Chang
Published: Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 – 9:24 am

DAVIS – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown attacked Republican rival Meg Whitman as a defender of the state’s richest people while Whitman called Brown a shill for state public employee unions during the candidates’ first debate, held Tuesday at UC Davis.

The 60-minute faceoff also saw Brown, a 72-year-old former governor, calling his age an asset in the state’s top job. Whitman, the former CEO of online auction firm eBay, billed herself as a break from business as usual in Sacramento.

Both made downsizing state government and reining in spending central to their campaign platforms, with Whitman and Brown offering different ideas on how to bridge budget deficits.

Whitman repeated her pledge to put new state employees on 401(k)-type retirement plans, as opposed to defined-benefit pensions, and to “attack welfare.” She has said, however, that she would allow public safety employees, except prison guards, to continue receiving fixed-benefit pensions.

Brown criticized that exception during the debate as proof that “when powerful forces come, she’ll cave.”

“We’ve got to attack the cost side of government,” Whitman said. “We should go to a two-year budgeting cycle (to end) this business of constantly having our back against the wall, not having the ability to think longer term than three to six months out.”

Brown said he would cut 15 percent to 20 percent out of the Governor’s Office and ask the Legislature and state agencies to do the same.”

“You’ve got to reset,” Brown said. “I would start by example. I will cut 15 to 20 percent out of the Governor’s Office. And I’ll say to the Legislature, ‘It’s your turn next, I’d like to see you get 15 or 20 percent,’ and I know they can. Then we start with the agencies, and we go from there.”

Despite the similar cost-cutting calls, the two candidates took contrasting stands on several top issues.

Brown emphasized that he supports Assembly Bill 32, the state law capping greenhouse gas emissions, while Whitman repeated her call for a one-year moratorium on implementing the law.

On immigration, Whitman said she opposed offering “a path to legalization” for illegal immigrants, while Brown backed such immigration changes.

When asked about the death penalty, Brown said he’d “rather have a society where we didn’t have to use death as a punishment” but said he would enforce state laws allowing such executions.

Whitman made no such distinctions, saying, “I will be a tough-on-crime governor, no question about it. I am in support of the death penalty. I am for ‘three-strikes-and-you’re out,’ ” referring to a state law requiring stiff sentences for people convicted of a third felony.

Brown, the state’s attorney general, tried to draw a contrast of his own by repeatedly slamming Whitman’s proposal to cut the state capital gains tax, which he said would benefit only the state’s wealthiest people.

Whitman, who’s a billionaire, has invested about $119 million of her own money in her campaign, making her the biggest self-funding candidate in U.S. history.

“One of these targeted tax cuts is targeted at billionaires like Ms. Whitman and millionaires,” Brown said. “It’s about a $5 billion tax break that will go to the richest people in California. … Where will a lot of that money come from? Our schools.”

Whitman struck her own theme by drawing repeated attention to union support for Brown, which has included donations to his campaign and independent expenditure committees running ads against Whitman.

“My view is putting Jerry Brown in charge of negotiating with the labor unions around pensions, around how many people we have in the state government, is like putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” Whitman said.

Whitman and Brown stuck to talking points during the first half of the debate, at least until Brown let loose his well-known irreverence when asked if he would seek higher office as as he did during his first two gubernatorial terms, from 1975 to 1983.

“Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again,” Brown said. “But I’d say at 74, whatever it’s going to be in a couple of years, I’m ready. One more thing, I now have a wife. And I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars of Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

Whitman, for her part, repeated many of the attacks already featured in her TV and radio ads, such as criticism that Brown had raised taxes as governor and failed to fix Oakland’s school system when he was mayor there from 1998 to 2006.

The Republican candidate did not talk at length about her decadelong tenure at eBay, although many of her commercials have focused on that experience.

“You know what drives me crazy about career politicians?” Whitman asked. “They refuse to accept accountability. Governor Brown campaigned on being the education mayor. And now he says you know really, the mayor couldn’t really do it. It was really hard to make that happen.”

The differences in Brown’s and Whitman’s debating styles reflect contrasts in how they have run their campaigns. The Democrat, who’s received about $30 million in contributions, is helming a lean operation that began running paid advertising only after Labor Day.

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