The only general election debate in the California governor’s race was a contrast in style and substance. Republican businessman John Cox argued he could make the state more affordable. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom sought to link Cox to President Trump. The two didn’t agree on much.
But both worry about California’s high cost of living. Newsom laid out several proposals, including a carrot-and-stick approach that awards more money to cities and counties that meet their housing goals. Cox said that wasn’t enough — which led to this exchange:
Newsom: “What you heard from John is an illusory strategy where he criticizes —"
Cox: “No …”
Newsom: “— and identifies problems, but with all due respect, doesn’t have the details and the strategies to actually solve …”
Cox: “What you heard from Gavin is more government, more plans to pay out money from government, tax credits, plans for government financing. But if you don’t really attack the cost of building, the delays in building, the litigation, the lawsuits, the impact fees that are put on housing in the state, if you don’t do that, what you’re gonna do is institutionalize these high rents.”
Later, the conversation turned to gun control. Newsom pointed to the campaign he led two years ago for Proposition 63, which tightened laws on guns and ammunition. And he slammed Cox for backing concealed-carry laws and opposing wait times before gun purchases.
“In every one of these cases, I think he’s wrong,” Newsom said. “And all I can say is that thankfully he’s not been in a position of real leadership and influence in the state of California, because we would not have had the progressive record on gun safety that we had.”
This was one of several moments that Cox sought to shift the focus back to his core message — and away from issues that are hard for Republicans to campaign on in California, such as firearms.
“We’re talking about guns, we’re talking about all these other social issues that I’m not running to change one iota. I am not,” Cox said. “I am running to make sure that people in this state have an affordable life.”
Cox was much more comfortable when the debate next turned to last year’s fuel tax and vehicle fee increases that fund transportation projects. “The politicians like Gavin went ahead and approved an increase in the gas tax. They didn't want to do the tough job; the tough job would have been making Caltrans live within its means,” Cox said.
Newsom backs the gas tax increase. “What John just argued for is to make things worse. His plan is to make things worse,” he said. “The fact is the Legislature and the governor finally began to address this issue in a substantive way. He's talking about taking away over $5 billion every single year for road improvements. Public safety improvements. Addressing the issue of traffic and congestion — which in and of itself is a hidden tax.”
Near the end of the debate, California’s “sanctuary state” law came up. Cox reiterated his vow to overturn the law. Newsom criticized that — and Cox’s other positions on immigration.
“He parrots at almost every opportunity Donald Trump and Trumpism, and Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor,” Newsom said.
Cox said he does support a border wall. But he put some distance between himself and the Trump administration on federal immigration arrests in public.
“I'm not in favor of checking papers in classrooms or on people's yards and going around and taking people out who are obeying the law,” he said.
Polls suggest Newsom holds a clear lead, though it appears to have narrowed since the primary. At first blush, there were no breakthrough moments to transform the governor’s race. And even if there were, it’s not likely that this radio-only debate at 10 a.m. on a federal holiday reached very many of California’s 19 million registered voters.
Counties are sending vote-by-mail ballots out beginning this week.