Sunday, June 20, 2010




Any voters worried about not having meaningful choices in the fall election can now rest easy: There have rarely been as many contrasts in California’s top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. senator as this year.

The differences between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman go far deeper than just their bankrolls, but it’s OK to start there. Yes, Brown owns a home and his family possesses a ranch in rural Northern California, but Whitman is a billionaire. Brown spent next to nothing to get his party’s nomination for governor, while Whitman plunked down more than 70 million personal dollars in what primary opponent Steve Poizner – who put up $24 million of his own in a futile effort – called “the most blatant attempt ever to buy an office in California.”

For sure, there has never been a political donor to compare with Whitman, who is taking full advantage of Supreme Court decisions allowing individuals to spend whatever they please on their own campaigns. There can be no doubt about the depth of her desire to become governor, even if she hasn’t adequately explained her deepest motivations.

The personal contrasts run even deeper: Brown spent a good part of his youth renouncing personal wealth and later worked with Mother Teresa in India during a decade-long hiatus from public life spanning most of the 1980s and early ‘90s. Whitman studied business and has spent her life in pursuit of personal and corporate wealth. Brown enjoys sparring with reporters and other questioners; Whitman has kept such contacts to a minimum. California has never seen rival candidates with such differing aims and outlooks.

That’s just the personal side. The policy contrasts are just as sharp. As attorney general, Brown pushed for federal adoption of California’s clean air standards and strongly supported the AB32 greenhouse gas restrictions now targeted by the oil industry and conservative politicians. Whitman wants to suspend AB32 until the recession is over. Brown refused to defend the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriages; Whitman backs it. Whitman wants no public services for illegal immigrants; Brown has always expressed sympathy for immigrants of all types. And on and on.

The contrasts are also sharp in the Senate race, pitting Democratic three-termer Barbara Boxer against Republican Carly Fiorina. They go far beyond the differing hairdos upon which Fiorina remarked just after winning the GOP primary.

While Boxer has spent a career in public offices from county supervisor to Congress to the Senate, Fiorina rose through the business world to become chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Corp., where she engineered the takeover of Compaq computers and was eventually ousted because her policies drove share prices down. During that time, she expressed little interest in public affairs; like Whitman, she rarely bothered to vote.

Their personal histories aside, Boxer and Fiorina differ on almost every significant issue that interests large numbers of Californians: Boxer is for greenhouse gas reductions and a cap-and-trade plan; Fiorina joins Whitman in wanting to suspend AB32. Boxer supports same-sex marriage; Fiorina is opposed. Boxer voted for and vocally supported President Obama’s health care plan; Fiorina has promised she’ll work to get it repealed or truncated.

These kinds of differences demonstrate that eligible voters who don’t bother participating in elections because they say they can’t see differences between the parties are just plain wrong. In this year’s votes, you’d have to be blind not to notice the contrasts.

And yet…Libertarians insist the differences are only cosmetic. Both major parties, they insist, represent little more than competing versions on a big-government theme.

The same for skeptics on the left, including frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

The folks who say there’s little difference have always been wrong. Democrats have created government-run programs from Social Security to Medicare to food stamps, smog reduction and now the new health care program. Republicans fought all these changes, sometimes voting unanimously against them.

Each party says it stands for individual liberty; they just mean different things by the term.

These differences will play out again this fall in California, with clear choices confronting Californians at every major turn. That may not produce close races, but it surely will create plenty of excitement and voter involvement.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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