Jerry Brown aide caught on tape calling Meg Whitman a “whore”

jerry brownThe LA Times reported last night that they had obtained audio of Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor in California, talking with one of his aides about the Republican opponent Meg Whitman. In the exchange, the aide suggests calling Whitman a “whore” for having made a pension deal during her campaign and Brown appears to approve the label. From the LA Times:

“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, what appears to be a second voice interjects: “What about saying she’s a whore?”

“Well, I’m going to use that,” Brown responds. “It proves you’ve cut a secret deal to protect the pensions.”

According to Talking Points Memo, the Whitman campaign “jumped on the issue in an attempt to drum up sympathy from female voters,” calling the use of the word “an insult to both Meg Whitman and to the women of California.”

(In case you’re wondering how the audio was recorded in the first place, apparently Brown thought he had hung up the phone properly after leaving a voicemail… but he had not. So next time you see that in a movie and think, “yeah, right,” remember this moment.)

This is what it looks like when gender is a part of our national political conversation. When candidates and their aides use highly gendered derogatory terms to refer to the opponent, and when that opponent responds by appealing to women’s personal-is-political feminism, we are having a national discussion about gender.

Granted, in this case, it seems largely accidental in one camp and strategic in the other. Brown’s aide sure as hell didn’t mean to start the conversation, because he sure as hell didn’t mean to get caught on tape calling Meg Whitman a whore. As for the Whitman campaign, they’re right to say that calling Whitman a whore is an insult to her and to women everywhere – but they’re also hoping that telling people so will win more votes for Whitman.

As a result, we are having a national conversation about gender. But it doesn’t feel like a particularly productive one – it’s more a case of one camp screwing up by revealing underlying sexism and the other capitalizing on that mistake to score a few points. We’ve seen this happen with race a million times. It’s not an honest discussion of structural and cultural sexism in America and how it affects people of all genders.

I want to make it clear that I think what Jerry Brown’s aide said was unacceptable, as was Brown’s seemingly tacit endorsement of the word. It’s not acceptable, obviously, to call anyone a whore. But I’m trying hard to remember what Jay Smooth taught us: condemn the action, not the person, or the campaign. Demanding accountability for that action is what will move our conversation about gender forward. Calling Brown and his aide sexist pigs gets us nowhere. By the same token, while I think it’s important to call out sexism when we see it, it’s not acceptable for the Whitman campaign to try to use this as a political opportunity.

Incidents like this one remind us where America’s is at when it comes to sexism. They remind us of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go. I’m not, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, going around being grateful that male politicians can no longer get away with calling their female opponents whores. While it’s sort of the bare minimum you can expect from a civilized society, I’m glad that people have jumped on this and realize that what was said on that videotape was unacceptable. What happened in California overnight reflects the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to speak in a way in public (or in private if there’s a chance that your boss didn’t hang up the phone properly), that sounds sexist.

And I’m glad that now, as a result of this incident, we seem to be heading toward a national conversation about gender now. But I want it to be a real discussion. I want a substantive conversation about gender, one that isn’t about trying to score points in the run up to a tight election. Somehow, though, that seems like wishful thinking.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted October 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Oh no he didn’t?!!!? Ummm, is it okay to still vote for him this November? It kind of harks back to 1984 when it was implied that Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a bitch. Dirty politics…..

  2. Posted October 8, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    While I agree with your assessment that the Brown campaign staffer’s remark was not acceptable and that Whitman is using the situation for political points, I am not as optimistic on this being a “start,” even a small one. You pointed out that this happens with race a lot and so I think a better reaction would be after the election, win or lose, Meg Whitman should come out and discuss her experiences in dealing with gender issues. This would allow for a more “politics free” conversation.

  3. Posted October 8, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Chloe,

    Why are you so nice?!

    Brown called a woman a whore and you have so little to say? Why let Jerry Brown off so lightly?

    I think I know why: Jerry Brown is a Democrat and Meg Whitman is a Republican. Simple as that.

    I cannot imagine Feministing giving such an easy ride (“… it seems largely accidental…”) to a Republican candidate in a similar situation.

    If outrage is to be taken seriously, it needs to be colour blind. In other words, something is disgraceful or shameful regardless of the speaker’s political affiliation.

    I was expecting better from Feministing.com.

    (Besides, name-calling is a pretty low form of political dialectic, don’t you think?)

    • Posted October 9, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, there’s definitely a partisan shift because the offending party is on our ‘team.’

  4. Posted October 8, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Note that the speaker in question was a woman (well at least that’s how it sounded to me). I don’t think it changes the analysis here, but your coverage is inaccurate.

  5. Posted October 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I call politicians whores all the time, regardless of gender.

  6. Posted October 10, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Smiley,

    I don’t think Jerry Brown got let off lightly. When supposedly pro-woman politicians like Brown get caught up in sexism, it does put feminists in a bind- not because Brown is a Democrat, but because Brown favors laws that help women more so than his opponent, even though his opponent is a woman herself. We have to call out the action while at the same time separating it from the politics. It also highlights the importance of getting in pro-woman politicians who are not just so politically but also personally.

  7. Posted October 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    @Chloe ~ I’m right there with you about wishing that this incident sparked a national discussion about gender (and sexism in politics!). It’s too bad the Whitman campaign is using this as a strategic campaign move instead of an opportunity to connect with votes on the issue.

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