By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 7:10 AM
Jerry Brown has a woman problem - he doesn't seem to grasp what it means to be running against one.
The California governor's race generated yet another controversy Friday after the Los Angeles Times reported a private conversation, inadvertently captured on voice mail, in which the Democratic candidate and his aides discussed the possibility of portraying his billionaire GOP opponent, Meg Whitman, as a "whore."
It was not the first time that Brown, the state attorney general and a former governor, has spoken of his female opponent or her supporters in terms that could be interpreted as sexist.
Brown's campaign quickly apologized, but the choice of words was inopportune, given that the outcome of the race may well depend on how well Whitman does with women voters.
Whitman - who is financing a record-breaking $140 million campaign from the fortune she earned as chief executive of eBay - presents a new kind of challenge for Democrats.
Where they have traditionally enjoyed a strong advantage with women, the latest Field Poll, conducted last month, showed Whitman and Brown each drawing the support of 41 percent of likely female voters.
"A woman with money? A woman who is not running for office because her father did, or her husband did, or with her husband's money?" said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway. "Democrats are caught totally unaware that the 2010 version of Republican women candidates is like nothing they have ever seen."
Earlier, Brown had tried to explain Whitman's strong poll numbers with women by saying her female supporters had been "bought, or paid for" with the many millions that Whitman has spent on negative campaign ads.
Brown also raised eyebrows when he suggested to the hosts of the talk show "Good Day LA"- two of whom were female and blond, as is Whitman - that staging a debate there would bring "another blonde on the show."
And for months, the California Nurses Association, a Brown ally, has shadowed Whitman's campaign appearances with an actress who calls herself "Queen Meg," decked out in a crown and sash and accompanied by a retinue of union members wearing blond wigs.
Even some Democrats are unsettled by the guerrilla theatrics.
"I don't remember anyone ever referring to [billionaire presidential candidate] Ross Perot" that way, said Ann Lewis, who was a top adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.
Where the queenly caricature "suggests something unearned, privileged," Lewis noted, Whitman's wealth comes from eBay, a company she led for 10 years, taking it from an Internet start-up to an $8 billion enterprise.
"I find that kind of offensive," said Susan Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor who managed Democrat Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign.
But Estrich also faulted Whitman, who she said has failed to give voters a compelling portrait of herself.
"She really is her own person, and the money is hers, and somehow that empowering message had gotten lost in this campaign," Estrich said. "At some fundamental level, she has not positioned herself as someone women should look to as the real thing."
First-time candidate Whitman's campaign has not been without its stumbles. The controversy over Brown's latest comments comes as Whitman is trying to tamp down a furor that could alienate Latinos, another crucial constituency with which she had been making strong inroads.
For more than a week, Whitman has been struggling with fallout from the revelation that for nine years she employed a housekeeper who was not in the country legally. Whitman, who has advocated stiffer enforcement of penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants, said she did not know of the housekeeper's status until her employee admitted it, at which point Whitman fired her.
Whitman's awkward explanations of how she fired the housekeeper, whom she said she regarded as a member of her family, raised questions about her credibility and her compassion.
So Whitman caught a badly needed break Thursday night when the Los Angeles paper reported a conversation last month among Brown and his aides that was picked up on a union official's voice mail, apparently after Brown believed he had hung up.
Brown and his aides could be heard discussing the pressure that police unions were putting on him to follow Whitman in pledging not to reduce their 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, someone - it is not clear whether it was Brown or, as his campaign says, another person - asked: "What about saying she's a whore?"
Brown can then be heard saying: "Well, I'm going to use that. It proves you've cut a secret deal to protect the pensions."
In a statement, Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said: "The use of the term 'whore' is an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California. This is an appalling and unforgivable smear against Meg Whitman. At the very least Mr. Brown tacitly approved this despicable slur, and he himself may have used the term at least once on this recording."
Brown's campaign manager, Steven Glazer, acknowledged in a statement that "at times our language was salty. We apologize to Ms. Whitman and anyone who may have been offended." The campaign also insisted that the person who used the term "whore" was not Brown.
Some Democrats suggested the whole episode was being overblown, and that it might ultimately even work to Brown's benefit, by showing that he is willing to stand up to public employee unions.
"Obviously, calling a woman a whore is never a smart thing to do in politics," Estrich said.
But she added: "In politics, the word has a broad and not necessarily sexual connotation."
On Friday, Brown's campaign announced that he had received the endorsement of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women.