Each candidate in Tuesday night's gubernatorial debate had strong moments, but the debate turned Meg Whitman's way when education became the topic.
The moderator, Tom Brokaw, helped Whitman by asking the topic that framed the question her way. Is the California Teachers Assn., the 300,000-plus member union that is this state's political Goliath, a help or hindrance to education? Whitman has sought to define herself as an opponent of public employee unions such as CTA -- and to define her opponent Jerry Brown as their tool? The question went to Brown, who quickly found himself in a spot.
Brown couldn't criticize CTA too strongly--they have been strong backers of his campaign. But he couldn't suck up too much, since anyone with a passing acquaintance with how schools work knows that teachers' unions are, at best, a mixed blessing. Brown must have wished for a straightforward question about how he might improve the schools.
His answer was weak and defensive. He defended CTA for a bit and then rambled incoherently. Whitman, after a brief interlude responding to an earlier question, drew a sharp contrast. She called CTA "part of the problem" and education and then talked -- as Brown had failed to do -- about schools and kids. Advantage, Whitman. Brown tried to save the day by noting his role in founding two charter schools in Oakland. But Whitman looked stronger. And she was convincing as an opponent of teachers' unions, particularly CTA.
The question is whether picking a fight with CTA is smart strategy. The union has the power to create real trouble for a governor.