Does Jerry Brown’s Campaign Have a Death Wish?

It appeared last week that the controversy over Jerry Brown’s efforts to depict his opponent Meg Whitman as a “whore” for agreeing to exclude public safety unions from her pension privatization plan, all in the name of poaching votes from Democratic-leaning workers, had finally settled down. But now Parry Ballasalma, the head of the California National Organization for Women (NOW), which endorsed Brown only one day after the original flap became a national news story, has told a conservative newspaper that she thinks the Brown campaign’s depiction of Whitman is accurate – she just wouldn’t have used the “W-word.”

Never mind that Brown’s campaign has already publicly apologized for making the remark, now widely attrributed to his wife Anne Gust, who previously managed Brown’s successful campaign for state attorney general. Or worse, that the president of the National NOW organization in Washington had just condemned the remark as “hate speech” and has called on Brown to fire any campaign aide who utters it again. Is it possible that the Brown campaign – and its liberal Democratic allies – have a death wish?

Not only is Whitman back in striking distance of Brown in the latest Reuters poll – trailing by a statistically insignificant 4 points, after Brown had shown signs of widening his lead – but she’s about to launch an unprecedented targeted ad campaign aimed at Asian-American voters, who constitute 13% of the state’s population and 6% of the electorate. Whitman’s already spent untold millions to woo the state’s Latino voters, with considerable success, according to polls. And she’s been running neck-and-neck with Brown among women, which is virtually unheard of for a GOP candidate in California where the bulk of female voters are registered Democrats.

In theory, of course, Whitman shouldn’t be exempt from salty, and even demeaning descriptions that are frequently heaped upon male politicians, including the “W-word.” In an era when male and female political candidates on both sides of the aisle freely sell their souls – and their votes – to corporate lobbyists, no one has a monopoly on political street-walking.

Except that Whitman’s a woman, and in our double-standard sex culture, apparently that changes everything, given our lingering attachment to the dead-and-dying concept of “male chilvalry.” Call a woman a whore – if you’re a man, at least – and you’re guilty of insulting her dignity, not just her politics, even if the remark – if Brown uttered it at all, and it doesn’t appear
that he did – was mere short-hand for how his campaign might portray Whitman’s decision to crassly pander to public safety unions – not an actual smear on her character.

In a race this close, with barely two weeks left, it’s hardly surprising that the two sides, especially Brown’s, perhaps, have started to go negative. The state suffers from double-digit unemployment and a whopping $19 billion deficit, and it hasn’t had a budget for three months. Brown doesn’t exactly have a lot of positive news to run on. But for a key campaign ally like NOW to re-open a potentially damaging incident with at best, a sloppy remark, and to hand Whitman a fresh propaganda advantage, truly boggles the mind.

What it indicates, though, is the level of desperation that is starting to set in with Democratic candidates nationally, as the GOP moves to exploit its new fundraising advantage – courtesy of the US Supreme Court’s decision on campaign financing last summer – to go after especially vulnerable contenders like Brown, and fellow Californian and three-term Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who could well lose to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — the latest poll has them in a dead-heat.

It also points to the growing frustration of NOW and other feminist organizations with the prospect that so many stalwart pro-choice Democratic women – Boxer among them – may be forced out of office this November, while a bevy of GOP female candidiates – many of them backed by feminist arch-nemesis Sarah Palin, and most far more conservative than Whitman – will almost surely sweep to power. For the first time ever, the female vanguard in Congress – and in the state houses also – is likely to be Republican.

Still, that hardly excuses the sheer stupidity of Ballasalma’s remark. Apparently, the reporter who quoted her even gave her a
chance to confirm whether she actually meant what she said. In other words, she was given an “out,” and Ballasalma still didn’t recant, or amend her remark. It’s just that kind of blithely arrogant defiance that’s killing Obama and the Democrats with so many voters this election – be it on health care reform, housing foreclosures, or immigration.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at