THE BLOG

Jerry Brown's Off To A Rollicking Start Against Billionaire Meg Whitman

09/11/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jerry Brown finally began his advertising campaign this week in the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California and he's starting off in a good position. As I've been saying for the past few months, he's come through the period from the June primary to Labor Day weekend without billionaire Meg Whitman and her biggest-spending non-presidential campaign in American history getting the 12 to 15-point lead it had planned on. In fact, she doesn't have any lead at all.

A new poll from CNN shows the race dead even, despite Whitman having spent over $125 million, some three times more than all her opponents -- Republican primary rival Steve Poizner and Democratic independent expenditure outfits like California Working Families and Working Californians -- combined. (That doesn't count millions spent attacking Brown on Whitman's behalf by the shadowy "Small Business Action Committee," which refuses to divulge its true contributors for this advertising, but shows in other reports that it gets its money from very big business.) As for Brown, he hadn't spent a dime during his many months of Zen rope-a-dope. Until a few days ago.

Jerry Brown launched his first TV ad of this campaign a few days ago.

Now Whitman is hoping that her latest attack ad -- she's been running them since the beginning of February -- doesn't show that she's overstayed her welcome on California's airwaves. She's hoping voters take seriously an attack leveled over 18 years ago against Jerry Brown by Bill Clinton, then running against Brown in the Democratic presidential primaries. The problem for Whitman is that the election is not next Tuesday.

Well, that's one problem. Another is that her ad repeats claims already widely debunked, including by factcheck.org. And the California Department of Finance, now overseen by Whitman's fellow Republican, Arnold Schwarznegger, says that, contrary to Whitman's repeated false claims, taxes went down during Brown's first go-round as governor. (In the heat of his 1992 presidential campaign against Brown, Clinton cited data from CNN that used the wrong years.)

But Whitman refuses to withdraw the ad -- To be clear, this is "Big Lie" propaganda in action -- and, let's face it, lying Meg Whitman ads are nothing new.

What is new is that, while Brown is on the air with a positive TV ad and a positive radio ad, the California Teachers Association just launched, late on Friday, a TV assault against Whitman. It's a very tough TV ad, airing around the state, attacking Whitman for her non-serious budget plan of big tax cuts for the wealthy and the threat it poses to the state's education system.

Continuing one of his themes from last weekend's Labor Day round of appearances before sizable rallies around the state, Brown ripped Whitman on Thursday for her tax cut and budget proposals. Which I've previously deconstructed here.

"Her so-called jobs plan, which is as phony as a three-dollar bill, is to give tax breaks to herself in one of grossest conflicts of interest I've ever seen in a campaign," Brown said during his weekly interview on San Francisco's KGO radio.

Brown noted, correctly, that Whitman's plan to eliminate the capital gains tax would create at least a $5 billion hole in the state's already wildly out of balance budget, mainly benefiting only the richest Californians.

"It's a gigantic ripoff," Brown said.

Some shallow thinkers believe that this Whitman ad recycling long debunked charges against Brown is brilliant. Actually, it is anything but.

The Whitman campaign is playing cynical games with its latest TV attack ad because it is desperate, far behind its plan coming out of Labor Day weekend. Whitman is only running even with Brown because the attorney general and former governor is under-performing with Democrats and hasn't yet taken the lead with independents, with whom he historically runs very well. That's why they have this seemingly clever but, as you see, ultimately backfiring ad showing Bill Clinton attacking Brown on the air now, to try to block what Brown should be able to do.

Here's the text of Brown's first TV ad of this campaign:

[Voiceover] As governor, he cut waste - got rid of the mansion and the limo. Budgets were balanced. Four billion in tax cuts. World-class schools and universities. Clean energy promoted. One-point nine million new jobs created. California was working.

[Jerry Brown]: I'm Jerry Brown. California needs major changes. We have to live within our means, we have to return power and decision-making to the local level, closer to the people, and no new taxes without voter approval.

[Voiceover] Jerry Brown. The knowledge and know-how to get California working again.

That's actor Peter Coyote, chairman of the California Arts Council during Brown's first go-round as governor, doing the narration.

Brown is underperforming among Democrats, where younger Dems need more inspirational information about him and moderate Dems need reassurance that he won't be a spendthrift in a time of grave economic uncertainty.

The California Teachers Association just launched this statewide TV ad attacking Whitman for her big tax cuts for the wealthy that the CTA says will lead to even more cutbacks for education.

He also needs to improve with independents, who aren't as liberally oriented as they were a few years ago in happier economic times.

His messaging going into and through the Labor Day weekend, along with the beginning of his positive TV advertising campaign this week, will help in all those areas. His initial ad, which features Brown speaking to camera -- unlike the Whitman ads, where that has always been problematic, as I reported in my very first piece on her advertising -- is workmanlike but seems to work.

Brown this week agreed to a third debate and is trying to get Whitman to go for another in Los Angeles. All the debates agreed to so far are north of the Tehachapis.

Brown, of course, is still challenging Whitman to 10 town hall debates up and down the state. Whitman prefers the more staid panel of reporters approach, which makes continuity and follow-up much harder and allows the less fluent candidate to escape extended scrutiny.

With his positive TV ad launched around the state, Brown launched a positive radio ad on Thursday.

Here's the script.

[Announcer:] Never accused of following conventional wisdom, Jerry Brown took on the status quo. As Governor he refused to take a pay raise and vetoed pay raises for state employees - dumped the Governor's mansion and the limo to save money.

And with Jerry Brown as Governor, California was working. Four billion in tax cuts - 1.9 million jobs created. Jerry Brown has the knowledge and know-how to get California working again.

[Jerry Brown:] As Governor, I was known for frugality. I thought if people were cutting back, Government should too. Today our state is in serious trouble. We need to make major changes - think differently and govern differently. By making the tough decisions now, we can get California back on track. We have to start living within our means. We need to return power and decision-making to the local level, closer to the people. And no new taxes without voter approval.

[Announcer:] Jerry Brown. The knowledge and know how to get California working again. Paid for by Brown for Governor 2010.

The narrator on the 60-second radio spot, as on the TV ad, is actor Peter Coyote.

Jerry Brown launched his first radio ad of the campaign at the end of the week.

Also on Thursday, Brown received the endorsement of the nation's largest state-level association of law enforcement officers, PORAC, the 62,000-member Peace Officers Research Association of California.

While Brown philosophically opposes the death penalty (which as many readers know, I do not), he has a lengthy background on law enforcement issues, having enacted the "Use a gun, go to prison" law during his first time as governor, increasing the police force and cutting crime as mayor of Oakland, pioneering new uses of DNA technology and executing major gang round-ups as California attorney general, and intervening along with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop a statewide initiative to do away with the state's three-strikes law.

To try to counter this, Whitman has her thoroughly dishonest attack ad against Brown. It's kind of clever, but not so much in the end.

Incidentally, in the latest example of the dramatic decline of the state press corps, the joint Capitol Weekly/Los Angeles Times web site published this little gem: "Last year, Clinton took the unusual step of endorsing Brown's then-rival, Gavin Newsom, in the governor's race."

Clinton was on a national payback tour for dozens of politicians who had helped Hillary Clinton in her campaign. Newsom was a national co-chair.

Clinton did one low-level fundraiser for Newsom in Los Angeles, made a very tepid statement about him, then spent the next three days in San Francisco, where Newsom is mayor, and proceeded to ignore him. Newsom dropped out a few weeks later, as first reported on my New West Notes blog.

How was I so sure that there would be no Clinton push against Brown for governor? Well, Clinton's longtime man in California, former senior White House aide John Emerson, was the best man at my first wedding. And I knew what the former president was doing around the country to pay back politicians who helped Hillary in her primary race against Barack Obama.