SACRAMENTO, Calif. – 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, the costs of combating climate change and high-speed rail.
The debate came the same day that Tesla and Nevada's governor announced 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.
"I don't think Governor Brown did nearly enough on Tesla or any number of businesses," Kashkari said.
Brown responded by saying that Tesla wanted a huge cash payment up front that would have been unfair to California taxpayers. Nevada's price 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 use 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 and 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 California'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 increases 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.
"He's raising your gas prices to fund his vanity project," Kashkari said.
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 called high-speed rail 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 such as water storage. He promised to ask voters to redirect $10 billion in voter-approved bonds toward water projects if elected.
Brown, 76, is heavily favored to win re-election to what would be an unprecedented fourth term. A Field Poll released earlier Thursday showed him with an edge of 16 percentage points among likely voters.
He also has at least $23 million in his campaign account, while Kashkari, 41, reported having $200,000 in his account at the end of June and has collected just $650,000 since then.
The debate featured sharp exchanges on some of the state's most pressing issues, including a ruling this summer by a Los Angeles County 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 and said the state had gotten back nearly all 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 was governor the first time from 1975-83.
The lifelong politician, who also has been state attorney general and mayor of Oakland, also took a few shots at Kashkari's lack of experience. He said leading the federal bank bailout was not the same as brokering legislative compromises and governing a complex state such as California.
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, with Kashkari even posing this summer 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.