Leaning on crutches, Tom Brokaw hopped into the center of the stage at Dominican University in San Rafael Tuesday night to open the third and final televised gubernatorial debate between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. Before the cameras began rolling, the newscaster and debate moderator used his broken ankle as a metaphor for the condition of the Golden State.
"We're both broken at the moment," he said. "The difference is I hope to be repaired before the beginning of the year."
No one expects California's problems – a 12.4 percent unemployment rate, a public school system ranked at the bottom of the 50 states, a $19 billion budget deficit, illegal immigration so rampant that the Republican candidate herself employed an undocumented housekeeper for nine years – to be fixed as quickly as Brokaw's ankle. And the two candidates offered little in the way of concrete solutions to the state's daunting problems during their hour-long debate on the campus of the private San Rafael university.
Mostly, with just three weeks left until voters weigh in on the tightly contested race, the ex-eBay CEO and the attorney general jabbed at each other's weak spots. Brown questioned how much of her own money his billionaire opponent would save under her plan to eliminate capital-gains taxes. Whitman rebuked the former two-term governor for his lukewarm apology after a Brown campaign worker who did not realize she was being taped was heard on a leaked voice-mail message calling Whitman a "whore."
"If you like the process we have in California, you should elect Jerry Brown," Whitman told the audience. "It will be the same old, same old."
Brown attacked Whitman's proposal for a temporary guest-worker program as "basically treating people from Mexico as semi-serfs."
A Dominican student walked out of hall after the debate saying: "I don't know how much debating was going on as opposed to bickering."
Outside the debate hall, supporters of each of the candidates screamed slogans over one another. Third-party candidates and people holding signs saying, "I am Nicky," referring to Nicky Diaz, the housekeeper Whitman fired after learning she was in this country illegally, began gathering to protest two and a half hours before the debate. Green Party supporters wearing green gags around their mouths chanted, "Let Laura debate."
Not only did Dominican and NBC, hosts of the debate, bar Green Party candidate Laura Wells from participating in the debate, she was arrested when she tried to enter the hall to watch it.
Wearing a green shirt with white stars, Larry Bragman, vice mayor of Fairfax and a Green Party member, demonstrated alongside Wells and introduced her and Marnie Glickman, co-chair of the Marin County Green Party, to someone who gave the two tickets to go into the hall. After Wells and Glickman, who lives in San Rafael, made their way through one security barrier, and they were standing on the stairs a few feet away from the auditorium entrance, Glickman said a plainclothes security guard stopped them.
Wells, wearing a bright green shirt and a black skirt, refused to step down from the stairs, and security officers, and plainclothes police officers surrounded her a little more than an hour before the debate's start. "I'm a candidate," she said, her voice rising as a security guard held her arm. "I even won my primary. We want to have solutions, not the status quo."
About half a dozen officers led Wells to a squad car. A San Rafael police press release says officers arrested the 62-year-old Green Party candidate for trying to enter the hall with someone else's ticket. Wells, the release says, presented a ticket issued to someone else and refused to relinquish it to campus security when asked to do so.
She was cited for trespassing, released and is scheduled to appear in Marin County Superior Court on Nov. 2 – Election Day.
"Laura's arrest epitomizes the poverty of a political culture which has abandoned youth, the unemployed and the foreclosed," Bragman said in an email message. "In these difficult days, California needs more voices and more choices if it is ever to progress beyond the wall of political conformity, which is crushing its future."
Other politicians were given tickets to the event. All the members of the San Rafael City Council received tickets, as did members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Assemblyman Jared Huffman attended.
The university distributed nearly 800 tickets through a lottery, but some audience members said they were offered the tickets without applying. Each of the candidate's supporters was supposed to get 10 tickets. Brown gave one of his to 15-year-old Ethan Borrasso, a student at Oakland Military Institute, who sat next to his proud mother in his dress military uniform.
Brown founded the institute as a charter school in 2001, when he was mayor of Oakland.
After the debate, Supervisor Steve Kinsey pronounced Brokaw the winner. "They were punchy questions, even if you didn't get punchy answers," Kinsey said.
Brokaw kicked off the debate by quoting President John Kennedy's inaugural request: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" and asking the candidates to tell Californians what sacrifices they would have to make.
Whitman deflected the question and talked instead about coming to California 30 years ago with her newlywed husband and living the California dream, a dream she says is now broken, and she can fix. Before her time was up, Whitman did add: "There's going to have to be some shared sacrifice." But she did not say what the sacrifice might be.
Brown offered no more specifics. "We do have to make some tough decisions, live within our means," he said. "We're going to have to rise about the poisonous partisanship."
But the partisanship continued unabated Tuesday night.
When Brown fumbled, intending to say he had the backing of the police chiefs but instead saying, "I've got the police chiefs in my back . . ." and stopped to correct himself, Whitman laughed and interjected that her opponent meant to say "in his back pocket."
After passionately advocating for federal immigration reform, Brown said he did not want to get into the uproar over Whitman's housekeeper but launched right into it.
"We have millions of people here illegally," he said. "They're in the shadows. We need comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. We need to think about this very carefully – not just from a political point of view but from a human point of view. These are real people, mothers, dads and kids. They have this fear, the fear that [Whitman's housekeeper had.
"It's kind of a sorry tale. After working for her for nine years, [Whitman didn't even get her a lawyer."
Nicky Diaz, Whitman's former housekeeper, has become a symbol of the national immigration quandary. Whitman says she hired Diaz, who is from Mexico, through an employment agency and was under the impression she had the legal documents necessary to work in the United States. In June 2009, when Whitman learned Diaz had forged her documents, she fired her on the spot.
"It's not fair that we work hard and then get thrown away like garbage with no thought about what will happen to us," Diaz said in a news conference.
A couple of Spanish-speaking women carrying signs saying, "I am Nicky" assembled with their children outside the debate hall.
Alondra Torres held a sign saying, "No Megusta." The 14-year-old Santa Rosa middle school student accused Whitman of lying and trying to buy votes. "Jerry Brown was with Cesar Chavez," she said, "and we want it to be the same story as it used to be."
Contact Ronnie Cohen at email@example.com.