Just when it seemed like Democrat Jerry Brown was starting to pull away from Republican Meg Whitman in the California gubernatorial race, an oversight in telephone protocol could cost him. It happened in early September. Both candidates were seeking the endorsements of police organizations, and Whitman had earlier promised to protect police and other public-safety employees from pension cuts if she became governor. After calling the Los Angeles Police Protective League and asking for an endorsement in a voice mail, Brown hung up the phone and discussed the situation with an unidentified associate. Except he didn't actually hang up the phone, and the voice mail kept recording.
With frustration, Brown discussed the pressure he was under from police unions to pledge not to reduce public safety pensions. Months earlier, Whitman agreed to exempt public safety workers from part of her pension reform plan: the bid to enroll new government workers in 401(k)-style plans instead of pensions.
"Do we want to put an ad out? That I have been warned if I crack down on pensions, I will be — that they'll go to Whitman, and that's where they'll go because they know Whitman will give 'em, will cut them a deal, but I won't," Brown said.
At that point, a voice — either that of Brown or a second person — can be heard saying: "What about saying she's a whore?"
"Well, I'm going to use that," Brown says. "It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect the pensions."
The police union handed the tape of the message to the media, and now we all know about it. It's not clear whether Brown himself called Whitman a whore. According to one police transcript, a California TV station reports that "whore" was first uttered by an adviser and then repeated by Brown. At the very least, Brown didn't disagree with the slur, or say anything like, "You know, that's very sexist language, please don't." There's no doubt that candidates regularly say terrible things about each other behind closed doors. But it's always embarrassing and potentially damaging when they make their way out into the open.
Whitman quickly expressed outrage, and angled for the sympathy of women, who may have been turned off recently by allegations of mistreatment by Whitman's former domestic help.
"The use of the term 'whore' is an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California," her campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. "This is an appalling and unforgivable smear against Meg Whitman."
Brown didn't go with the old "oh, that was just jogging talk" excuse this time, mostly because he was not jogging when he said it.
Brown's campaign manager Steven Glazer said: "This was a jumbled and often inaudible recording of a private conversation. At times, our language was salty. We apologize to Ms. Whitman and anyone who may have been offended."
It's unclear at this point what the fallout of Whoregate will be. Perhaps most damaging of all to Brown is not his sexist remark, but that voters can no longer be sure he knows how to use a phone.