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Candidates For California's Next Governor Battle To Separate Themselves In Forum

Sandra Oshiro | KPCC

Six of the major Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates for California met on stage at USC Saturday in a sometimes boisterous forum as the winnowing begins in the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

Their answers reflected the sharp divide between Democrats and Republicans on issues from the state's relationship with President Trump to the education system, but also surfaced divisions among the Democrats and between the two Republicans.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, running second in recent polls, had perhaps the most to gain or lose from the event as he tries to close a gap showing his political strength in Southern California and weakness in the north.

But other, lesser-know candidates had a chance to raise their profiles and position themselves on key issues before the June primary.

Watch a replay of the town hall here:

Questions for the candidates included those culled from over 1,000 suggestions from community members. They represented the many challenges facing the state:

California and Trump

Asked about President Trump's recent remarks on Haiti and African countries and how they would work with him, the Democratic candidates were sharply critical, with former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and Lt Gov. Gavin Newsom calling Trump a racist.

"How can I work with him? With great difficulty, obviously," said Villaraigosa. He expressed the hope that Trump, whose critics have called for his impeachment, would not be president by the time the governor is elected.

GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen defended the president, saying the bottom line is the president is "trying to work with everyone to get immigration solved."

Transportation

Allen and fellow Republican John Cox, both supporting efforts to repeal the recently implemented gas tax and vehicle fee increases to fix roads and pay other transportation projects, criticized Democrats for the funding package and adding to the tax load of Californians.

The Democratic candidates generally supported the higher taxes and fees, noting California's roads across the state are badly in need of repair. 

"The poor quality of our roads are costing people time and costing people a lot of money," Eastin argued.

Homelessness

Allen drew boos from the audience when he said among the solutions to homelessness is getting tough on those on the streets.

That brought a retort from Villaraigosa. "We don’t need to demonize the homeless," he said. "I think we have to remember that they are human beings."

One of the few specific suggestions to address the problem came from Newsom, who called for an interagency body to address homelessness and coordinate services.

The Democratic candidates said homeless individuals would be best served  through building more housing and providing more social services to address issues such as mental health and substance abuse. 

Health Care

Health care created among the most contentious moments among the candidates.

Newsom, who is calling for a single-payer system similar to Medicare, suffered barbs from Villaraigosa for not laying out a specific plan for paying for it. One estimate puts the cost of a single-payer system at $400 billion.

Chiang also drew catcalls from one audience member when he said that while he supports a single-payer system, the “details are important.” He said a decision needs to be made on how much payroll taxes would be raised to help cover the costs.

He said California’s first priority should be to protect the federal Affordable Care Act.

Both Republican candidates, Allen and Cox, are opposed to any sort of single-payer health care plan. They each say California needs less regulation and more competition.

Environment

A question about California’s recent wildfires and mudslides also drew a range of answers from the candidates.

“I believe in something called science,” Eastin said, calling for long-range planning to address climate changes contributing to the natural disasters. She also said she is the only candidate who is demanding an end to fracking in the state.

Cox blamed environmentalists for fighting funding to thin the forest and other forest management measures to help prevent wildfires. “We can’t just blame science,” he said.

Education

ABC7 moderator Marc Brown asked the candidates how they would improve the state's graduation rate, which stands at 83 percent but still falls below the national average.

Allen said there is a lack of accountability in the education system and blamed special interests. "We need to fire bad teachers," he said. "Why should we condemn inner-city families to send their kids to some of the worst schools in the nation?"

The graduation rate is even lower for those who are poor, Villaraigosa said. "The next governor has to say this is the civil rights issue of our time."

Criminal Justice

Asked by KPCC co-moderator Mary Plummer to address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Newsom said the "era of mass incarceration must come to an end." Adding to his progressive credentials, he said the war on drugs has been a war on people of color.

Eastin called for an end to the cash bail system and more investment in education.

Following the event, Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles, said the candidates showed there are differences in their views — not just between parties but within them.

"It’s clear that Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa will be challenging themselves pretty strongly," Sonenshein said. 

Sonenshein also noted that the election comes at a time the country's largest state and the federal government are pursuing very different goals. "That's a whole new thing. I don't think anybody has ever run for the governor of California in that circumstance."

One voter in the audience, Victor Castellano of Monrovia, said whoever becomes governor should consider the needs of the diverse communities up and down the state. But he added: "I would like the next governor to focus in on those who need the most help."

The town hall was presented by the Empowerment Congress, the civic engagement group founded by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and USC's Unruh Institute for Politics. KPCC and ABC7 participated as media partners.

Ridley-Thomas said in opening remarks: "If you don’t vote on Tuesday, June 5th, don’t complain on Wednesday, June the 6th." 

KPCC reporters Josie Huang, Michelle Faust and Mary Plummer and KPCC news producer Brianna Flores contributed to this story.

This story was updated.

Sandra Oshiro | KPCC

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