California: Brown Puts Whitman on the Defensive over Greenhouse Gases

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From left: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images; Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Candidates for California governor, Jerry Brown, left, and Meg Whitman

How does California attorney general Jerry Brown fight billionaire Meg Whitman in the battle to be the next governor of the Golden State? Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, spends nearly as much per day (an average of $531,378 over the past six weeks) as Brown has spent all year — $633,205. Yet the cagey and frugal Brown leads the free-spending billionaire in the latest poll 37% to 34%. By necessity, Brown is running a low-budget guerrilla campaign against Whitman, whose spending has now zoomed past the $100 million mark. Skilled at jumping on issues and turning them to his advantage, Brown is living off free media, hoarding his $23 million in campaign cash for fall television ads and doing his best to keep the Whitman juggernaut off balance. And now, he's picked up his latest weapon: Proposition 23 on the November ballot.

Proposition 23 takes aim at California's ambitious environmental law (known as AB 32 or the global-warming law), which requires greenhouse-gas emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. If approved by voters in November, the ballot measure would halt enforcement of AB 32 until California's unemployment rate, now over 12%, falls to 5.5% for at least four consecutive quarters. There have only been three periods in the past 30 years when California's unemployment rate dropped that low. At the moment, the rules for AB 32 will be issued on Jan. 1, 2011 and have the force of a law a year later.

Last week, Brown, a former California governor, declared global warming to be the defining issue between himself and the Republican candidate, saying Whitman "will gut AB 32." In the months to come, Brown said, "the contrast between my proposal for green jobs and her shilly-shallying on AB 32" will become clear. It seems to have come sooner. After weeks of saying she was neutral on Proposition 23, Whitman finally took a position — sort of. In an interview on talk radio in Los Angeles, Whitman said, "In all likelihood I will vote no on Prop 23," before adding that she has not yet made a "final decision." Still, she has not backed off a pledge she made at the time of the Republican primary: to suspend the greenhouse-gas-emissions law for at least a year if she becomes governor.

Brown, who is loudly against Proposition 23, had seized on Whitman's silence on the issue and is now pouncing on her waffling to portray her as a supporter of Prop 23. Indeed, despite her latest statement that she may vote no, the ballot measure's supporters see Whitman as an ally. "Whitman has said all along that AB 32 is a job killer and that she favors temporary suspension of the law and that is our position as well — it is consistent with Proposition 23," says Yes on 23 spokeswoman Anita Mangels.

Brown is well aware that Whitman's willingness to suspend the greenhouse-gas-emissions law puts her on the wrong side of California public opinion. A new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that 66% of residents support the climate law, 45% of the public believe AB 32 will create more jobs, while only 23% believe it will kill jobs (24% say the number of jobs won't be affected). Independents, who currently support Whitman 42% to 39%, are opposed to Proposition 23 by 53% to 29%. Brown's goal is to make independents aware of Whitman's mushy stance on global warming and clean energy.

Brown echoes what environmentalists and supporters of green technology have been saying: Whitman's intention to suspend AB 32, like Proposition 23, would vaporize the nation's most audacious greenhouse-gas law. The author of the landmark measure, state Senator Fran Pavley, says a suspension of AB 32 by the next governor would be the same as repealing the law. "Over the last few years we have seen nearly $900 million of venture capital invested in this new business opportunity in our state." says Pavley. "If AB 32 is taken away, these new jobs will dry up."

Brown may also see an advantage of tying Whitman to Prop 23 because it is financed from outside California. Funded by Texas oil companies Valero Energy Corp, Tesoro Corp and California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp, a coalition of businesses and antitax groups gathered enough signatures to qualify Prop 23 for November. Their argument is that, given the depth of the recession, AB 32 is an excessive energy tax that the state can ill afford.

Brown is joined in his opposition to Proposition 23 by two high-profile Republicans — Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, the co-chair of the No on 23 campaign. Furious at the attempt to derail his signature environmental achievement, Schwarzenegger says, "This initiative, sponsored by greedy Texas oil companies, would cripple California's fastest-growing economic sector." Opponents of Proposition 23 also include Google, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Los Angeles Business Council.

Pressured by conservatives during the Republican primary to endorse Proposition 23, Whitman took the more moderate position of calling for a one-year moratorium on the implementation of AB 32. (The new law has a built-in stipulation that gives the governor of California the authority to suspend it for "extraordinary circumstances, catastrophic events or threat of significant economic harm" — a suspension that can be renewed annually.) Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei insists the candidate has been consistent about AB 32 from the beginning. "Meg will place a one-year moratorium on specific AB 32 regulations," Pompei tells TIME. "While she supports the goals of AB 32, she also believes we must fix its implementation so each regulation is fully analyzed based on careful economic and environmental review."

Brown is giving no quarter. "Most Californians interpret Whitman's opposition to AB 32 as support for Proposition 23," says Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford, "for the obvious reason that if you are against something, you are for its repeal." Meanwhile, Brown has vowed to champion renewable energy and efficiency standards as he did when he was governor in the 1970s. "When I was governor, California was the world leader in renewable energy and it led the nation in efficiency standards," said Brown. "Investing in clean energy and increasing efficiency are central elements of rebuilding our economy. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, build the businesses of the 21st century, increase energy independence and protect public health." The November election, says Steven Maviglio, spokesman for the No on 23 campaign, will be "a bellwether on climate-change policy around the country."