By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - The debate between Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown and his long-shot Republican opponent quickly turned to insults on Thursday, kicking off the state's election season with disagreements over education, high-speed rail and immigration.
Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who has had trouble raising funds to fight Brown, called Brown's signature high-speed rail project a "crazy train," and the governor repeatedly took jabs as Kashkari's one-time role as a Wall Street investment banker.
"I feel like I'm getting a sales pitch here from Neel," Brown said.
"You learned your job well working at Goldman Sachs."
Brown, who served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, returned to the state's highest office four years ago and now seeks his fourth term at the helm of the most populous U.S. state with high approval ratings and a rapidly recovering economy.
Kashkari, who oversaw the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis, has kept his campaign going with $2 million of his own funds in the lopsidedly Democratic state.
Brown said he would sign a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags passed last week by the state legislature, an environmentalist-backed effort that Kashkari ridiculed, along with other recent bills he had supported restricting full-on tackle football practices for middle- and high-school students to avoid concussions and a measure allowing dogs on restaurant patios.
Asked about immigrant children flooding the U.S. border with Mexico, Kashkari said he would send them home and criticized Brown's move to help the children find lawyers to represent them in immigration proceedings.
"The solution for suffering kids is not an open border in America," Kashkari said.
He also criticized Brown's decision to appeal against a controversial court ruling overturning five job protection laws for public school teachers.
The ruling, a major setback for teacher unions that could also have national implications, came in response to a lawsuit filed by education reform groups on behalf of nine students. The groups alleged the job protections hurt poor and minority students by effectively funneling incompetent teachers to schools in disadvantaged areas at disproportionate rates.
However Brown, who said he also does not want incompetent teachers in classrooms, said he appealed against the decision so that a higher court could decide whether it should apply to the whole state.
Kashkari, 41, trailed 76-year-old Brown by about 20 points in the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Including his own contributions, he had raised $4.5 million from Jan. 1 through June 30, closing the period with less than $200,000 in campaign cash on hand, state records show.
Brown, by contrast, raised $5.7 million during the same period, ending June with more than $22 million in cash, campaign records show.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Dan Grebler and Paul Tait)