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Whitman, Brown spar in spirited final debate

(10/12) — UPDATED 23:55 PDT — SAN RAFAEL, CALIF.  – The gloves flew off as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown traded blows in their final debate before the November election.

From left to right, photos of candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman.

The candidates answered questions from NBC News’s Tom Brokaw on the budget, pensions, immigration, and the state’s landmark global warming law. But Whitman and Brown found room in the free-flowing format to trade zingers, question each other’s facts, and drag out the recent controversies over Whitman’s undocumented former housekeeper and a Brown staffer’s use of the word “whore” to describe Whitman.

Brown offered an apology when asked about a staffer’s use of the word “whore,” caught on tape by a Southern California police union during a phone call to discuss endorsements in the governor’s race. “I’m sorry it happened,” he said during the debate.

But Brown attempted to downplay the significance of the incident, which he said was based on a “garbled” recording of a “5 week old” event and questioning whether taping the phone call was legal in the first place.

Whitman pounced on what she saw as a hedge to the apology. “The people of California […] deserve better,” she said, calling the term “deeply offensive” to Californians, especially women.

Whitman, meanwhile, was asked by Brokaw how she could expect employers to find out whether their employees were in the country legally if she couldn’t discover for nearly a decade that her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, was undocumented.

“It broke my heart” to have to fire her, Whitman said, suggesting “this is why we need a very good e-verify system” to allow employers to verify potential hires’ documents.

But Brown questioned whether Whitman really cared about Diaz. “She didn’t even get her a lawyer” after Diaz told Whitman she was in the country illegally, he said.

Candidates trade sharper blows on budget, taxes

Whitman, who is trailing Brown by small margins in most recent polls, came out swinging in very pointed exchanges on taxes and the budget.

Brown, when asked about how his plan for fixing the state’s budget differed from the status quo, said he would start the process earlier, involve all of the state’s legislators instead of just the leaders of the two parties, and “take [the process] on the road” to hear from ordinary people and get them to “articulate in a very clear way” what the state government should be. “I don’t have to learn on the job,” he said, touting his prior experience as governor.

But it was his oft-repeated pledge to cut 10 to 15 percent from the budget for the governor’s office that drew one of the best lines of the night from Whitman, who said that cutting 15 percent of the governor’s budget would save only $2.7 million at a time the state faces a $20 billion deficit. “If that is your plan for fixing the budget, we have really big problems ahead of us,” she said, addressing Brown directly.

But Brown defended the idea. “I want those in power […] to lead by example,” he said. Brown said that Whitman hasn’t provided any details of the billions of dollars in cuts she proposes.

Both candidates backed Proposition 13, the 1978 voter-approved initiative which caps property taxes, when asked by Brokaw whether it needed to be changed to fix the state’s budget crisis — then used the ensuing discussion to trade barbs on taxes and the economy.

Brown again attacked Whitman’s plan to eliminate the capital gains tax, calling it a break for “millionaires and billionaires” and saying it would add $5-10 billion to the deficit, forcing the state to take money from schools. Whitman, as in past debates, defended the proposal, calling the tax a “tax on jobs” and “investment.”

“How much money would you save?” Brown asked Whitman, a former executive with online auction site eBay.

But Whitman was ready for the attack. “My track record was creating jobs,” she said.

Then she addressed Brown directly. “Your business is politics,” she told him, adding “you have been part of the war on jobs for 40 years.”

Candidates say little new on global warming, pensions, campaign cash

Responding to a question about AB 32, the state’s landmark law to control the greenhouse gases which cause global warming, Whitman repeated her call for a one-year moratorium on the implementation of the law, claiming it would do “real damage” to what she said were the 97 percent of the state’s jobs not in the green sector.

“We can be green and smart,” but “cannot jeopardize” jobs, she said.

But Brown said that “no credible study” supporting Whitman’s claim had been published, saying that a California State University Sacramento study which forecast significant economic harm from AB 32 had been “thoroughly debunked.” He again promoted his green jobs plan, saying that building new clean energy plants and retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy-efficient would create jobs.

Brown defended the California Teachers Association in response to a question about the teachers union’s role in education, calling it a “strong advocate” for increased education funding. He went on to again defend the role of unions in his campaign and assert his independence from them.

But Whitman called the teachers union bosses “part of the problem” with the state’s K-12 education system. The union “fights change every step of the way,” she said.

And she once again pointed to unions’ political spending in defending her record-breaking personal contribution — now in excess of $140 million, including a $20 million contribution reported today — to her campaign. The massive outlay “does allow me independence,” she said, whereas union bosses would “collect IOUs” from Brown if he were elected.

As in the past, Whitman questioned whether Brown’s dependence on union backing would allow him to carry out reforms to the state’s underfunded employee pensions. Pensions are “squeezing out” higher budgetary priorities, she said, though she said she would not support rolling back benefits for current retirees.

Brown, though, said he had lost endorsements from police unions because of his refusal to offer them a special deal like Whitman.

Free-flowing debate allows extended exchanges

The one-hour debate, held at Dominican University in San Rafael and sponsored by NBC, was notably more open and free-flowing that the two that preceded it. Opening and closing statements, usually a chance for candidates to recite talking points uninterrupted for a few minutes, were omitted, and moderator Tom Brokaw — a veteran of several debates, including the second presidential debate in 2008 between John McCain and Barack Obama — allowed the candidates plenty of time to respond to each other’s accusations.

There was action outside in addition to the now-conventional groups of supporters of the candidates demonstrating outside the debate, too. Green Party gubernatorial candidate Laura Wells, who did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the debate, was arrested while trying to get in.

Voters will go to the polls to choose a governor November 2, though most absentee voters have already received their ballots, and early voting has begun.

Originally published on Oct. 12 from California Beat.

Contact Steven Luo at