SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown's long-shot Republican challenger blasted him for failing to do enough to land a Tesla battery plant Thursday during the only scheduled debate of this year's governor's race, a testy, hourlong exchange that also featured clashes over teacher tenure and the costs of combating climate change.
The debate came the same day that Tesla and Nevada's governor announced that 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.
GOP candidate Neel 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.
"Governor Brown hasn't done the work," Kashkari said.
Brown responded by saying that Tesla wanted a huge cash payment up front that would have been unfair to California taxpayers. And the price to Nevada 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 uses 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.
The former U.S. Treasury official nevertheless made the most of the opportunity, hitting the Democratic incumbent on a wide range of issues. That included criticism of Brown's support for a ban on plastic shopping bags to his 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 the state'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.
Yet Kashkari said the expected price hikes on utility bills and at the gas pump are not fair to average Californians and promised to stop the rules that will increase prices at the pump if he is elected.
He also said Brown is using the revenue from the climate change law to fund his $68 billion high-speed rail project, which Kashkari opposes.
Make no mistake, Kashkari said, "He's raising your gas prices to fund his vanity project."
Brown has steadfastly pursued the bullet train even in the face of declining public support and statements from congressional Republicans that no additional federal money will be given to the project.
Brown describes it as an investment in the future and a cheaper alternative to building more freeways, while Kashkari said the money could be better spent on more pressing needs, including water storage and school buildings.
The debate featured sharp exchanges on some of the state's most pressing issues, including a ruling earlier this year by a Los AngelesCounty judge that California's teacher tenure laws unfairly hurt poor and minority students. Brown has appealed the decision.
"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."
The governor continually touted what he termed a California comeback during his past four years in office, noting that he had helped turn years of multibillion dollar budget deficits into a surplus.
He also said the state had gotten back the 1.4 million jobs it lost during the recession.
"California's not perfect, we've got our problems, but boy what momentum we now have," said Brown, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term after being governor previously from 1975-83.
But Kashkari said Brown's lifetime in politics had left him out of touch with the middle class.
His campaign has focused on the unevenness of California's economic recovery. The former head of the nation's bank bailout even posed as a homeless man in Fresno over the summer to demonstrate how difficult it remains to get a job in some parts of the state.