The made-for-the-tabloids fracas triggered by an unidentified associate of Jerry Brown’s who called Meg Whitman a “whore” demonstrates a fundamental dynamic of California’s campaign for governor: it’s Krusty’s race to lose, and he’s entirely capable of doing just that.
At a time when Team eMeg was clearly on the defensive, having stumbled badly in their handling of disclosures about her employment of an illegal immigrant, the incredibly stupid, unforced error by Team Jerry provides Republican Whitman a gift-horse opportunity to slow the momentum his campaign had begun to build and to stay within striking distance of the Democratic front-runner. [For a good time, click on Miss Adelaide above]
As a policy matter, the point Brown’s aide sought to make about Whitman — during a free-wheeling strategy discussion that was embarrassingly revealed after Krusty failed to ring off a call to the L.A. police union and the private conversation was captured on the organization’s voicemail — was well-taken:
While eMeg likes to cast herself as a reformer taking on the political status quo, it was she, not Brown, who cut a sweetheart deal with the cops to exempt them from her proposal to roll back pension benefits for public employees, in exchange for the endorsement of the union. This may undercut Whitman’s ability to use the slander effectively: if she brings it up, her quid pro quo with the cops comes to light. As Steve Lopez of the By God L.A. Times put it Friday: Whitman is not a whore, but a hypocrite.
As a political matter, however, the substantive issue was largely overshadowed by the ruckus over the Brown adviser’s choice of language.
In a race between two male candidates, referring to your rival as a “whore” who does the bidding of special interests would be unlikely to attract much attention. In a race against a woman, however, the characterization sounds sexist and demeaning, regardless that it was spoken in a supposedly private conversation and twisted out of context by Whitman and her allies.
While the cable and chat shows on TV fed on the story like sharks on fresh meat on Friday, the impact of the insult when broadcast is weakened because they routinely bleep the word “whore.”
However, appearances and perception matter hugely because one of the central arguments of Brown’s campaign is that “character matters.” Even if there’s little evidence that the incident will move voters, it surely has the capacity to sully Brown’s image.
Mindful of the potential political impact, Krusty on Friday quickly rolled out the endorsement of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. Even leaders of that solidly pro-Democrat group, however, finessed their comments to acknowledge the insult implicit in the offending word.
“It’s an inappropriate use of sexist language,” NOW president Patty Bellasalma told Calbuzz, when we asked if there would a political backlash among women voters, “but it’s not an inappropriate characterization of what Meg Whitman did…She carved out a two tier system and accepted 100% police pensions in order to get their endorsement and a $450,000 independent expenditure.”
Bellasalma insisted to us that NOW’s endorsement was made “a few days ago,” adding that “we didn’t run around and get an endorsement in response to the news.” But she acknowledged that, “the timing is obviously somewhat advantageous to the Brown campaign and we’re in favor of that.”
Brown, like Democrats across the state, counts on a significant gender gap to deliver a strong majority of female voters. In an effort to cut this advantage, however, the Whitman camp immediately seized on the comment to portray Brown as disdainful of women in general.
“The use of the term ‘whore’ is an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California,” said eMeg spokeshuman Sarah Pompei. “This is an appalling and unforgivable smear against Meg Whitman. At the very least Mr. Brown tacitly approved this despicable slur and he himself may have used the term at least once on this recording.”
For their part, Krusty’s allies and spinners insist the controversy will not have lasting impact.
“Women are a pretty intelligent electorate,” Ballasalma said. “Women vote on the substance, not on political tag lines.” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is unaffiliated with the Brown campaign, was more blunt: “Whore schmore,” he said, predicting no substantial effect on voters.
Beyond the gender question, however, this is clearly a distraction for Brown’s campaign and allowed the Whitman camp to change the subject from the issue that has dominated the campaign for the past two weeks: her employment for nine years of an undocumented worker named Nicky Diaz, who has publicly denounced the Republican for treating her “like garbage.”
Also, anyone who listens to the tape of the call (which the police union fed to the LA Times) cannot help but be struck by the frat house tone and texture of the discussion among Brown’s top advisers, whose voices and arguments are a cacophony of churlish crosstalk.
While this may be of interest only to political junkies and insiders, it also reinforces the perception of Brown’s overall lack of discipline, coming after he was forced to clean up two previous loose-lipped, foot-shooting episodes.
A few months ago, he compared Whitman’s campaign to the Nazi propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels, drawing criticism from some Jewish groups; later, he snarked publicly about Bill Clinton’s honesty and sexual dalliances, at a time when top Democrats were negotiating for the ex-president to endorse Brown.
Sterling Clifford, Brown’s spokeshuman, said the atmosphere inside the Brown campaign is no different than any other political office he worked in: “You shouldn’t take a weird recording as an indication of what life is like in our office.”
Brown allies also argued that while the illegal immigrant saga reinforced an existing narrative about Whitman as a super-wealthy business executive isolated from the concerns of ordinary people, the “whore” controversy underscores no story line except Gandalf’s continuing ineptitude with technology and inability to use the damn phone properly.
Pompei of the Whitman campaign did not respond to a request for additional comments.