The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown promoted his record in turning around the California economy during a debate with his longshot Republican challenger Thursday night, in which the two sparred over the state’s business climate, a contentious teacher tenure law and whether Neel Kashkari’s business experience makes him qualified to lead the state.
Kashkari has made income inequality a central theme of his campaign and he accused the governor of overselling California’s comeback, saying millions of Californians are still trapped in low-paying or part-time jobs and too many poor children attend failing schools.
Brown noted that since retaking office in 2011, he has turned years of multibillion dollar budget deficits into a surplus and restored nearly all of the 1.4 million jobs lost during the recession.
“Our state was in a shambles, they were calling it a failed state,” Brown said. “Well, it’s back. It’s not all the way back, and he likes to create the false construct that if we’re not perfect, we’re not making progress. We are making incremental progress.”
Kashkari accused the Democratic governor of focusing on frivolous issues, noting bills that passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year include a statewide ban on plastic bags, regulating school football practices and allowing dogs on restaurant patios.
“But what they’re not working on is rebuilding the middle class,” Kashkari said. “The governor said we’re making incremental changes. We’re 46th in education, we’re 44th for jobs, we’re number one in poverty. The time for incrementalism is long since passed, governor.”
In drawing on his decades of political experience, including two previous terms as governor from 1975-83 and serving as state attorney general and mayor of Oakland, the 76-year-old governor contrasted his record with that of the novice Kashkari, 41. The former U.S. Treasury official is best known for helping lead the federal bank bailout and has never before run for office.
“I’ve been in government a fairly long time. Things don’t get done with a press release or a glib statement, they take many, many years. We’ve made major progress,” Brown said during an exchange over public employee pensions.
The debate came the same day that Tesla and Nevada’s governor announced the California-born electric carmaker would build its factory near Reno. California was one of five states trying to lure the plant and its 6,500 manufacturing jobs.
Kashkari cited it as an example of the Brown administration’s failure to improve California’s business climate, which is routinely cited as among the worst in the nation.
“I don’t think Governor Brown did nearly enough on Tesla or any number of businesses,” Kashkari said.
Brown responded by saying that Tesla wanted a huge cash payment up front that would have been unfair to California taxpayers. Nevada’s price for apparently winning the Tesla lottery was indeed steep — up to $1.3 billion in tax breaks over 20 years that includes waiving sales and use taxes, property and payroll taxes.
Thursday’s debate was the only time the two are scheduled to meet during the fall campaign and provided the best chance for the little known and under-funded Kashkari to introduce himself to a famously nonchalant California electorate. The debate in a cramped television studio across from the state Capitol took place on the opening night of the NFL season, a scheduling conflict that likely did not work in Kashkari’s favor.
Kashkari made the most of the opportunity, though, hitting the Democratic incumbent on a variety of issues, including a Los Angeles County judge’s ruling this summer that California’s teacher tenure laws unfairly hurt poor and minority students. Brown appealed the decision last week.
“You sided with the union bosses,” Kashkari said to the governor. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Brown was not allowed to reply, but quickly responded, “That is so false.”
Kashkari also criticized Brown’s refusal to stop what is expected to be a steep rise in gasoline prices next year because of the state’s global warming law.
Brown compared the oil companies’ threat to boost gas prices to their fight decades ago against California’s fuel-efficiency standards, which are now the national norm. In supporting California’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Brown warned of the dangers from climate change, including rising sea levels and more devastating wildfires.
“We have to do something,” he said.
Kashkari said Brown is using the revenue from the climate change law to fund his $68 billion high-speed rail project, which Kashkari opposes.
Brown has steadfastly pursued the bullet train even in the face of declining public and federal support. He called the project an investment in the future that is cheaper than building more freeways, while Kashkari said the money could be better spent on more pressing needs such as water storage.
Brown is heavily favored to win re-election to what would be an unprecedented fourth term. A Field Poll released earlier Thursday showed him with an edge of 16 percentage points among likely voters.
He also has at least $23 million in his campaign account, while Kashkari, 41, reported having $200,000 in his account at the end of June and has collected just $650,000 since then.