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The Gubernatorial Candidates Debate in Davis – and the Public Schools are Barely Mentioned

By Jeff Hudson - September 30, 2010

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman never really got around to discussing K-12 education during their debate at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on Tuesday night.

In the candidates’ defense, during most of the hour-long exchange, the candidates were replying to questions posed by selected representatives of the news media – and those questions dealt mostly with the economy, the state budget stalemate, the candidates’ respective careers (as well as their respective frugality and business acumen), crime, the death penalty, and other topics. (“We each had five or six more questions . . .  we didn’t get to everything we wanted to,” said panelist Marianne Russ of Capital Public Radio, with a touch of regret, during a post-event analysis.)

But even during their opening and closing statements, when the candidates were free to address topics of their own choosing, they barely referenced the public schools. (Prior to the debate, Whitman had identified “fixing the schools” as one of top three priorities – but in the end, she didn’t go there.)

What few references to K-12 education did crop up during the hour-long session were mostly tangential.

Brown (the Democratic candidate) suggested that Whitman’s pledge to cut the capital gains tax would “hurt schools” by taking $5 billion out of the state’s general fund, and handing a “tax break to the wealthy.”

Whitman (the Republican candidate) said “It’s not OK that our schools rank at the bottom of the barrel” as part of her roundabout response to a question about spending $112 million of her own money on her campaign. Whitman maintained that relying on her own money would make her more independent as Governor, and implied that Brown would be beholden to unions that have donated to his campaign.

Whitman also tried to tie Brown (who served as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007) to the subsequent state takeover of the financially troubled Oakland Unified School district several years ago.  Brown spoke about how he’d helped set up several charter schools in Oakland, and noted that school district budgets are adopted by an elected school board, not the city’s mayor.

Brown made repeated attempts to identify Whitman as a candidate whose policies would primarily benefit the wealthy; Whitman repeatedly tried to link Brown to unions representing public employees. She scored the most-repeated sound bite of the night by saying that electing Brown as governor was “like putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

Brown countered that as governor in decades past, he had actually turned down pointed requests from public employee unions. Brown also earned laughs by  making light of his age (he is 72) and alluding to his late-night visits to Sacramento bars when he was Governor (and single) between 1975 to 1983 -- he said he wouldn’t try to “close the bars” now, because he’s older now, and married.

Whitman stressed her private sector expertise, said she’d improve California’s business environment, and apologized for her spotty record in terms of registering to vote and going to the polls to cast a ballot during decades past.

Overall, the debate produced few surprises . . . Whitman appeared to be sticking with rehearsed remarks, enunciating themes that have been part of her campaign’s commercials in the broadcast media.  Brown’s comments occasionally flitted from topic to topic (a tendency that in 1979 prompted Chicago columnist Mike Royko to apply the moniker “Governor Moonbeam” to Brown, who was running for President at the time. More than a decade later (and only a few years before his death) Royko expressed regret for having tagged Brown with the nickname, but the label has stuck with Brown through the years, and is still heard from younger reporters who came of age long after Brown’s first two terms as Governor had ended.

There will be two more debates between Whitman and Brown:

–A Spanish-language gubernatorial debate (apparently a first) will be held on Oct. 2 (4 p.m.) in Fresno, sponsored by Univision.

–Another English-language will be held on October 12 (6:30 p.m.) at Dominican University in San Rafael.

So educators can hope that “maybe, next time” their issues will figure more prominently in the discussion.

Editor's Note:  Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.