The three main candidates for governor — Jerry Brown, Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman — each promised Friday to release up to 25 years of income tax returns, moving to defuse a campaign issue while potentially opening an unprecedented amount of personal financial information to public view.
In recent weeks, Democratic groups have been taunting Whitman, a billionaire who once ran eBay, for her unwillingness to release tax information in response to a January request from the San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group.
But on Friday, it was Whitman who first pledged publicly to release the returns, saying she would make the move if Brown did also, and offering 25 years rather than the ten years the paper had requested.
Whitman's pledge came at an impromptu, hour-long press conference after she arrived at the California Republican Party convention in Santa Clara.
In response, a spokesman for Brown, Sterling Clifford, said Brown will release his tax returns, having done so every year while he was governor in the 1970s and early 80s.
And a short time later, Poizner also agreed, saying he could provide 25 years "if you could help me go to my basement'' to find them.
The candidates have not yet specified when or how the returns will be released and there was some skepticism Friday about whether the public will be granted full and easy access.
Whitman "has to do the full Monty. She can't have people come in and spend 13 seconds and then kick them out. If she does that, it'll make a bad situation even worse.," said Chris Lehane, a senior strategist for Level the Playing Field, a union-backed campaign group that has criticized Whitman.
As far as could be determined, no candidates for a major office have released so many years of returns; since Whitman and Poizner are both billionaires, the information in their returns is expected to be extensive.
When the Mercury News first asked for tax returns, Republican Tom Campbell was the only candidate to comply, albeit partially, by immediately releasing his 2008 returns.
Campbell, who soon afterward quit the governor's race to run for the U.S. Senate, has also promised to release his 2009 returns when they're complete.
With her press conference, Whitman also may have deflated a second issue that has dogged her in recent days: that she has been avoiding political reporters.
Whitman answered a wide-range of questions in a room at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara.
She came out swinging against Poizner, who has attacked her as being an "extreme liberal.''
Said Whitman: "There is one liberal Republican in this race, and it is not me,'' pointing to Poizner's previous support of public funding of abortions and so-called partial-birth abortion — and his opposition to parental consent laws. Since Poizner ran for state Assembly in 2004 he has reversed those positions.
Whitman called Poizner's attempt to morph from a Silicon Valley moderate to a hard-core conservative a "trust'' issue.
But Whitman did make one confession: She voted for Poizner for Assembly six years ago.
"He was the Republican,'' Whitman said.
Reporters pressed Whitman on how she would close the enormous budget deficit in Sacramento. She said she would cut 40,000 state workers over her first term, reduce the pensions of future employees, cut the number of welfare recipients and make government more efficient through technology.
Later Friday evening, Whitman gave a speech to Republican convention delegates in which she promised to cut taxes and slash government spending to restore California's economy, and blasting Brown. "Failure — punctuated by job losses and tax increases — seems to follow him wherever he goes," she said.
She appeared on the same stage as Mitt Romney, her former mentor, former Massachusetts governor and likely candidate for president in 2012.
Earlier Friday, Senate candidate Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman, confronted a controversy of his own: his actions on behalf of former Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who later pleaded guilty to conspiring to the aid members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Campbell in early 2002 wrote a letter protesting Al-Arian's dismissal from the University of South Florida. Al-Arian had drawn controversy for, among other things, an incendiary speech in 1998 calling for "death to Israel."
At a Friday news conference, Campbell apologized for sending the letter. Said Campbell: "I was wrong. I should not have done so. I regret it.''
He said he wrote the letter without properly investigating Al-Arian.
"I did not know'' what he had said about Israel, "but I should have.''
Campbell is running against former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
Steve Harmon of the Bay Area News Group's Sacramento bureau contributed to this report. Contact Ken McLaughlin at 408-920-5552.