San Diego Union-Tribune

Thursday, May 14, 1998

Candidates for Governor Trade Views, Potshots
By DANA WILKIE, Copley News Service, and JOHN MARELIUS, Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Sharing a public stage for the first time, California's four major candidates for governor yesterday alternated between articulating lofty visions for the state's future and its schools, and sniping over one another's campaign tactics.

State Attorney General Dan Lungren, the presumptive Republican nominee, participated in yesterday's 90-minute gubernatorial debate that was dominated by subtle differences at best among the contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Businessman Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Rolling Hills, used the bipartisan forum sponsored by the Los Angeles Times to talk about spending more on public education, making streets safer and ending the divisiveness they say has characterized the tenure of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Lungren for the first time declared his opposition to Proposition 227, the June 2 ballot measure that would end most bilingual education programs in California's public schools. The Republican said he opposed the initiative out of his commitment to local control for school districts, while the Democrats reiterated their opposition for a variety of reasons.

The candidates discussed a host of issues, including education, gun control, abortion and the state surplus in response to questions from a Times columnist and editorial page editor before an audience of about 300 business and civic leaders.

The morning event was broadcast on cable and local television stations, except for about 10 minutes halfway through when the transmission was lost temporarily.

The bipartisan debate, rare for a primary election, was yet another unusual aspect of California's first-ever open primary in which voters can select a candidate of any party from the ballot regardless of their own partisan affiliation.

Harman highlighted her distinction as the only woman in the race and suggested a woman would be adept at forging political coalitions in contrast to what she called the "macho" approach of many politicians.

"The fundamental difference between me and other candidates is the difference between the macho approach and the way a skilled, experienced woman thinks about choice, crime, education, health, guns and immigration," Harman said.

Though the congresswoman insisted she was not asking for votes "because I'm a woman," political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said Harman left that impression.

"It was being used to pander to women and I think women are a little more sophisticated than that," said Jeffe, a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University.

Checchi, the super-wealthy former Northwest Airlines co-chairman who is financing his own spending-record-breaking campaign, focused on his plan to invest billions of dollars in new programs for public safety, public works and education. All of this could be accomplished, he claimed, without raising taxes.

At one point, he held up a slim paperback booklet called "The Checchi Plan." The moment was reminiscent of another Democratic candidate for governor -- former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown -- who used a gubernatorial debate in 1994 to display her own booklet for building California's economy.

Checchi has not spelled out how he would pay for his plan, whose price tag is estimated to be more than $10 billion, other than to assert it could be financed with tax receipts generated by continued economic growth.

"This plan is specific and every voter can read it," he said. "And we can pay for it without raising taxes. I reject the old politics that say that we have to be content with things as they are."

Davis focused on public safety, education and ending a divisive approach to governing -- a reference to Wilson and contentious California ballot measures such as Proposition 209, which ended race-and gender-based preferences in state and local government programs.

"I will try very hard to end these divisive, wedge-issue campaigns that we see year after year," Davis said. "As governor, I will highlight the strengths of our people, not the weaknesses."

The lieutenant governor referred frequently to controversial former Gov. Jerry Brown, whom he served as chief of staff in the 1970s. At one point, Davis joked that, in the words of his former boss, teachers must be rewarded monetarily as well as "psychically."

He also repeatedly reminded viewers that he is a Vietnam veteran.

At one point, Davis was asked how he could support measures opposed by unions, such as merit pay for teachers, when some of his biggest campaign contributors are labor unions. He responded that he has differed with unions in the past, noting that he discouraged their effort -- eventually abandoned -- to write a ballot measure ending tax exemptions for state businesses.

Lungren, whose public comments about Proposition 227 have been increasingly negative, unequivocally declared his opposition to the bilingual education initiative because it does not allow local school boards to fashion their own alternatives.

"I can't support that initiative because it goes against what I've been talking about throughout California for the last number of years, local control," the attorney general said.

Lungren referred frequently to his California roots, at one point gesturing toward one of his childhood teachers who sat in the audience when discussing the need for quality public education.

But unlike the Democrats on stage, Lungren avoided any mention of spending extra money on public education, saying "money's important, but it's not the most important thing." Instead, he said, teachers need to know they're "respected," while students and parents need to know schools are safe and that they have a say in local education decisions.

To that, Checchi responded, "Dan, I've got to disagree with you. Money is important."

Asked if they would fire educators whose schools consistently perform poorly, all four candidates said they would. They also embraced higher pay for teachers who perform well. Only Lungren said he would support publicly funded vouchers, however. And Lundgren, more than the others, emphasized the need for parents to have more control over local school board decisions.