Brown vs. Whitman: “Old School” Versus “Rich School,” Tensions Mount in the Race for California Governor

In this year’s hyper-partisan midterm election, literally every corner of the political platform, be it social, fiscal, economic, environmental, or foreign policy, is under feverish debate.  While many focus their attention on the Congressional elections in Washington D.C., California’s 2010 gubernatorial race is not only the funniest sounding election, but may actually be the single most important.

Roughly 11.5% of the population of the United States is in California.  If California were its own country, it would be China’s eighth largest trading partner, ahead of Russia and India.  So it is an obvious but underappreciated fact that the Golden State’s chief executive wields significant national and global power, and his or her policies might have a substantial impact beyond state borders.

All that said, if American politics is a circus, California is the clown car.  For example, our current governor and seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger sprinted to Sacramento through a flurry of political gunfire.  You see, Californians are able to “recall” their governor by a simple majority vote, no criminal record or impeachment necessary, as a way to hold “recalcitrant officials” to their campaign promises.  Every governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has been subject to a recall effort, but only one has successfully been removed.

The victim was our last governor, Democrat Gray Davis.  In 2003, he tripled the state’s vehicle license fee while trying to reduce the $35 billion budget deficit, and apparently the voters had had enough.  Enter the “Governator,” who won the special election with 48.6% of the votes—but not before the L.A. Times ran an article (five days before the election) in which several women alleged Schwarzenegger had sexually assaulted them in the past.

But now, after two terms, Arnold is bowing out of Sacramento in less dramatic fashion, leaving California with a clean opportunity for a fresh start.  So let’s meet the 2010 candidates:

If you don’t have a TV, a radio, or a computer; cannot read the newspaper or magazines; and walk around with your eyes shut, ears plugged, humming Teenage Dream—you have still probably heard of the Republican candidate for governor, Meg Whitman.  That’s the kind of exposure you can expect from a $140 million political campaign, the largest privately funded campaign in history.

 The out-of-pocket price tag represents just over 10% of Whitman’s $1.3 billion net worth, a fortune she earned over a prestigious career as a businesswoman, serving as an executive with Disney and Hasbro before becoming CEO of eBay, where she helped grow the company from 30 to 15,000 employees in just under ten years.

Whitman was playing to win all the way back in February, when radio and TV spots began popping up with regularity, imploring voters to “share ideas” on her political blog  Whitman supports abortion rights and is an advocate for Prop. 8 to ban same-sex marriage.  She is staunchly against amnesty for illegal immigrants, but has been subject to criticism since mid-September when it was revealed that her housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, was an illegal alien.  Santillan had furnished a falsified Social Security card and driver’s license when hired, and Whitman could not have legally demanded more documentation, but Santillan claims Whitman knew of her illegal status.

Now, if you haven’t heard of the Democratic candidate for governor, or hadn’t before about a week ago, don’t feel too bad.  Former California Governor Jerry Brown has a political resume longer than Kevin Smith’s Costco receipt, and because this isn’t his first rodeo, even for the big chair, Brown’s campaign has been a little more . . . casual.

A former attorney, Brown served as California Secretary of State before becoming a two-term governor in 1975.  After a series of unsuccessful runs in the Democratic primaries for President, Brown hosted a political talk radio show in Berkeley called We The People until 1999 when he was elected Mayor of Oakland as an Independent.  Since 2007, Jerry Brown has been California’s Attorney General.

With all of his experience to lean on, and his policies a matter of public record, Brown’s campaign has been much more targeted.  His TV and radio ads have become noticeable only as the election draws near, and they often cite Whitman’s “inconsistent” stance on some issues— as the needles of a polygraph test dance in the background.

Earlier this month, Brown came under attack when the police union office released a message Brown had left them.  Thinking he had hung up, the message catches Brown and his aides discussing political strategy when someone (a source says Brown’s wife) suggests running an ad that calls Whitman a “whore.”

Mudslinging and name-calling aside, both candidates do have impressive histories of leadership.  Voters will be left with a tough choice, and the victor will be left with an even tougher job.  And for the loser?  Just ask smarmy-faced, impeached ex-governor and convicted felon Rod Blagojevich of Illinois: There’s always reality TV.

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