SACRAMENTO — Jerry Brown's top political adviser vowed last week to wage a hardball campaign aimed at branding Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman a liar and an ethically challenged corporate CEO.
Steve Glazer, Brown's campaign manager and longtime political confidante, said that Whitman's "lies" in early summer TV commercials have forced the character of the billionaire former CEO of eBay to the center of the campaign.
It's another signal to voters that they likely will witness a particularly ugly fall campaign.
"Her behavior indicates she is dishonest and can't be trusted. Prior to her actions, we sought to debate solutions to the budget, job creation and schools," Glazer said. "But by her behavior, she's injected the issues of honesty, trust and character into the campaign. They are on equal footing with other issues."
Glazer said that Whitman has failed to give satisfactory answers on a variety of fronts, including: an alleged shoving incident that led to a $200,000 settlement with an eBay employee; deals she received from the disgraced Goldman Sachs financial giant that were later determined to be illegal; her poor voting record; her refusal to release her tax returns; and apparent discrepancies in her views on immigration.
Whitman has also begun to face criticism from news organizations and fact-checking groups for the accuracy of her summer ad campaign painting Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal who, when
"When she says patently false things you force the character issue front and center," Glazer said. "How can you avoid making that a central part of the campaign? We're happy to have this discussion. We're not reluctant to engage it at all."
Whitman's chief campaign strategist, Mike Murphy, called the strategy "tired and cynical."
"We're going to focus on the issues people care about — jobs, dysfunctional Sacramento and education," Murphy said. "And he knows he can't run on that record, so he'll try to distract voters with a phony campaign of sleazy character assassination. It's politics at its worst and it's very much who Jerry Brown is."
Glazer said that a candidate's honesty is "fundamental" to voters' understanding of what kind of governor they would make. "For most, it's a low threshold to get over. If you can't tell the truth, how can you have a reasonable debate on any issue?"
Controversies such as the eBay shoving incident have not been fully vetted, Glazer said. Whitman was reported to have shoved an eBay employee, leading to a $200,000 settlement. In initially responding to the report, her campaign described it as a verbal dispute, then later said she showed the employee the door.
"She's never explained how showing an employee the door resulted in a $200,000 settlement," Glazer said. "And she never explained why she lied about it."
As Whitman has attempted to move toward the political center for the general election, Brown's team has tried to trip her up for apparent inconsistencies, particularly on immigration issues — central to Latinos, a key voting group.
In a recent column penned for a Southern California Spanish-language publication, Whitman said there was "very little" separating her from Brown on immigration issues. In the primary campaign, she promised to be "tough as nails" on illegal immigrants, stumping with her campaign co-chairman Pete Wilson, the author of Proposition 187 reviled in many Latino communities.
And where she previously said she would "prosecute illegal aliens and criminal aliens in all of our cities, in every part of California," a spokesman on Friday clarified her position, saying she supports locking up only illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
In the most recent Field Poll, Whitman and Brown were essentially tied — Brown leading 44 percent to 43 percent. The two also have relatively high negatives: 42 percent of voters view Whitman unfavorably, and 40 percent view Brown unfavorably.
Typically, when voters show that kind of ambivalence about the candidates, campaigns get nasty, political observers say. Both candidates, convinced that it would take too much time and money to improve their own standing, pivot to driving up the negatives of their opponent. This campaign, observers said, has all the earmarks of a knock-down, drag-out brawl.
Brown's strategy of going after Whitman on her personal ethics is largely geared toward the fall, when Brown has said he will start spending the $23 million he has safeguarded. Until then, Whitman is expected to dominate the airwaves, though independent groups supporting Brown have promised to respond with their own on-air campaign.
Democrats, however, have begun to openly worry that support from major Democratic donors has failed to materialize, and that if summer money dries up, Brown will fall too far behind Whitman before the traditional Labor Day start to the full-on campaign.
Brown has kept visible since the end of the primary by appearing on nationally syndicated television shows, conducting radio interviews and speaking at a slew of news conferences in his role as attorney general. But that effort pales in comparison to the ubiquity of Whitman's TV ads.
While blanketing the state with her ads, Whitman has made 10 public appearances since the primary, compared with 26 by Brown, which Glazer said reflects the continuation of the Whitman team's strategy to keep her "in a protective bubble."
"She doesn't want to put herself out there because she feels a great vulnerability to the types of inquiry and scrutiny that will come up," Glazer said. "It's wishful thinking on her part to presume that by hiding she's put all her problems behind her."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.
Reality Check: An appraisal of Meg Whitman's latest anti-Jerry Brown TV ad. Page A3