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The Debate Exchange That Really Matters

by: Robert Cruickshank

Sun Oct 03, 2010 at 10:00:00 AM PDT

Most of the coverage of yesterday's debate in Fresno between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown has focused on Whitman's false accusation that Brown was somehow involved in the housekeeper scandal. But there was a far more meaningful moment later on, pertaining to immigration, that showed a huge contrast between the candidates and the cruelty of Whitman's approach. If it gets the attention it deserves, it might even cost Whitman the election.

The exchange in question came when Univision went to an audience member to ask about the DREAM Act. She was a student who graduated first in her class in high school and is now an honors student at Fresno State, triple majoring! in poli sci, Spanish, and Latin American Studies. As a former college professor myself, I can tell you that these are the students you dream about having in class, the ones that make teaching worthwhile.

She explained that she was brought to California by her parents at a young age - in other words, that she was undocumented. (Which is probably why she did not give her name.) Her question was whether the candidates supported the DREAM Act, to let students like her get an education and, I'm paraphrasing, "contribute to the economy here."

Brown's response was direct and solid: he supports the federal DREAM Act, would sign the California DREAM Act, and believes it is our moral obligation to ensure that all our children, whether undocumented or not, got the opportunity to succeed, including getting a good education in California public schools, UC and CSU included.

But it was Whitman's shocking response that, as far as I am concerned, ought to be a game-changer in this election. Here's how Calbuzz quoted Whitman:

Here is the challenge we face: Our resources are scarce. We are in terrible economic times and slots have been eliminated at the California State University system - I think they're down by 40,000 students. Same is true at the ... the University of California system. Programs have been cut, and California citizens have been denied admission to these universities and I don't think it's fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher universities and favor undocumenteds.

Calbuzz omitted the first part of Whitman's response, which was a very condescending "I'm glad you were able to get a good, free education in California's K-12 public schools," but the blockquote gives you the gist: Whitman attacked this successful young student, saying she shouldn't even be allowed to attend Fresno State, and accusing her of taking someone else's place. In other words, it's this young woman's fault that some other Californian can't attend a CSU.

My jaw just about hit the floor when I heard Whitman say this. And I have to imagine everyone in the audience and watching at home had a similar reaction.

Every parent - whether Latino or not, whether documented or not - dreams of their child having the kind of success that this young woman is having. And when they watched Meg Whitman belittle and attack this woman for her success, saying that it was not only undeserved but that it was hurting others, their only reaction would be negative. Whitman's attack on Brown over the housekeeper issue may have been entertaining television, but it was Whitman's attack on one of California's best and brightest that will cost her a lot of votes.

That exchange was also revealing in how the two candidates treat the issue of immigration. Brown was very strong and clear that he did not support - at all - any form of immigrant-bashing. He didn't justify this by pointing to the economic contributions of immigrants, but by speaking a very clear and compelling moral language about our obligations and duties to our fellow Californians. He slammed Whitman for opposing a path to citizenship, which he said would force the deportation of 2 million people living in California - something Brown called "immoral."

For Whitman herself, like the rest of the California Republican Party, the undocumented are perfectly acceptable when they can be exploited for their cheap labor and living with the constant threat of deportation - but the moment they have anything approaching success, they're suddenly a threat to California and must be dealt with harshly.

Whitman's personal approach to immigration therefore matches Republican anti-immigrant policy quite well - exploit immigrant labor as long as you can, and get rid of them when you no longer need them. Brown made an extremely strong and powerful attack on Whitman's support for a guest worker program, explaining how it would allow workers to be exploited unfairly. In fact, Brown deserves kudos for his deeply progressive framing of the immigration issue.

Still, it was Whitman's shocking attack on the Fresno State student that was the most important moment of this debate. Let's hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Robert Cruickshank :: The Debate Exchange That Really Matters
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Let's agree that there was more than one (4.20 / 5)
debate exchange that really mattered -- I'm glad that Brown's takedown of Meg on the subject of your previous story seems to be getting some attention -- but the moment you cite was certainly one of them.

Meg's first sentence was astounding.  I want to hear someone ask her, "OK, "why are you glad that this student was able to get a good, free education in California's K-12 public schools -- or were you just being sarcastic to her?"  If she had the courage of her convictions, Meg would not be -- and I'll venture is not -- "glad" that this student got educated here for free.  She'd throw away this intellectual resource without a second thought.

Meg was clearly trying to capitalize on resentment from upper-class Californians about why their children didn't get into Berkeley.  (I'd say "middle-class," but given tuition hikes....)  Of course, the movement at the UC and (as I recall with less confidence) Cal State systems has been to try to bring in students from other states and, indeed, wealthy students from other countries who can pay the higher tuition.  Perhaps one can ask whether Meg will condemn that as well for snarfing up some of the spots at colleges and universities.

Of course, there's one other thing we could do to address this shortage of spaces: build more institutions of higher learning.  To get the Republican legislative vote, we could promise that if student demand ever slackens, we could turn them into prisons.

By the way, if you'll allow a global comment (4.50 / 4)
that's a little off-topic, I've really been struck in both debates at how good a job Brown does of explaining the moral basis for being a Democrat (and I'll still even call him a progressive Democrat.)  Despite legitimate bases to disagree with some of what he proposes, he truly understands the "music" of being a Democratic candidate.  I wish other candidates across the state and country could learn from his off-the-cuff answers about progressive values in politics.  

"Music" (5.00 / 1)
That is a far more evocative term than Geoge Lakoff's "bi-conceptual moral worldview frame". Bravo.

[ Parent ]
Yep (0.00 / 0)
I agree and her parents paid taxes here, I don't know of any way can get around them. Come on Jerry

[ Parent ]
How is K-12 education "free" to anyone exactly? (4.00 / 2)
"I'm glad you were able to get a good, free education in California's K-12 public schools,"

If her parents paid taxes in California at all then they contributed in some way to her education, as we all do for our children, and it certainly would not be free in the way that Whitman so outrageously and condescendingly implies.

Even if it was free it must have been a very good public education indeed, considering the students apparent success, since we all know that an undocumented student couldn't possibly have achieved anything on their own. (sarcasm alert) Obviously, since the student was undocumented, that means that her parents were poor freeloaders and didn't send her to private school either. Sheesh.    

Whitman's comment and assumptions are very condescending and despicable, as you say Robert, and she should be held to account for it. I think she should be required to donate to public education the equivalent amount that she spends trying to lie and buy her way into the governorship. I can dream can't I?  

I Look Forward (0.00 / 0)
I look forward to seeing that quote in a commercial -- with "I am Jerry Brown and I approved this ad."

The mainstream press left out what really matters (4.50 / 2)
The three papers I read Sunday, the ny times, the wsj, and the Oakland Trib made no mention of this exchange.

I used to think that education was an investment (0.00 / 0)
An investment with a return.  An ROI (return on investment) is something the Meg type CEOs always talk about.

Obviously she thinks that educating undocumented residents of California has no ROI.  This is her racist perspective at work.

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