Governor Gavin Newsom and State Sen. Brian Dahle traded barbs over California’s cost of living, climate policy, reproductive rights and other issues at their only planned debate before the Nov. 8 general election.
Newsom, a Democrat, is seeking a second term as governor and Dahle, a Republican from the rural Northern California town of Bieber, were the top two finishers in the June primary. Newsom finished with 58% of the vote and Dahle had 18%.
The debate was hosted by KQED in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, where the two met for a conversation-style, hour-long debate, which overlapped with a San Francisco 49ers game. The debate moderators were the station’s Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos. It can be viewed below.
Newsom tried to paint Dahle as a would-be obstructionist who often opposes Democrats’ proposals in the Legislature, but who rarely offers solutions to issues including homelessness and climate change.
“You’re just laying out talking points, but no substance,” the governor said to Dahle after an exchange over the state’s plans and funding for new water storage projects, including the Sites Reservoir planned in Colusa County. He likened the substance of his opponent’s arguments to “only a fog in terms of the dilution of reality and facts that you are promoting here.”
Dahle frequently turned his answers to California’s high cost of living — made worse under record inflation and fuel prices — and accused Newsom and other Democratic state leaders of not doing enough to address it.
The GOP state senator and farmer also repeatedly accused the governor of “running for president” rather than focusing on California's problems and assailed Newsom and legislative Democrats for failing to make progress on issues like homelessness despite record spending.
“What he's done in the last four years is throw money at every single issue — more than there's ever been,” Dahle said. “And what are the results for Californians? Higher gas prices, inflation, homelessness on our streets, our schools are failing. Our children and people are fleeing California.”
Here are five takeaways from the gubernatorial candidates’ only meeting on the debate stage this election.
Newsom committed to staying in office through 2026 if elected
One of the first questions KQED moderators posed to Newsom was whether he would commit to completing the four-year term if re-elected as governor.
Newsom has received attention as a possible Democratic presidential contender should President Joe Biden bow out in 2024. The governor frequently fuels such speculation with stunts such as putting up billboards in states with new abortion restrictions to advertise reproductive care in California. He frequently attacks Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas over gun laws and policies impacting LGBTQ people.
Newsom answered the question with a “yes” before again attacking Republicans for their policies on reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
They debated pausing the gas tax or implementing a new “windfall tax”
When asked about calls from Republicans to suspend the gas tax, Dahle explained how increased transportation costs drive up the price of food and other goods and argued that pausing the gas tax would be “the fastest way you can actually help drive down inflation.”
Newsom and Democratic leaders in the Legislature have refused to suspend the gas tax, arguing that nothing would stop oil companies from keeping prices high and collecting more profits.
When pressed on how to ensure a gas tax holiday would actually result in lower prices at the pump, Dahle said he would “make sure that they do it through their taxes that we push down.”
Newsom again described Republicans’ arguments for pausing the gas tax as “talking points” perpetuated by oil companies. He touted inflation relief checks, which are currently being doled out to lower- and middle-income taxpayers.
The governor also mentioned his call for a special session on Dec. 5 to pass a “windfall tax” on oil companies, though he did not offer any additional details about his proposal.
Newsom cited energy experts who say California’s taxes and requirements for cleaner burning (but more expensive) gasoline do not account for the wide price difference from the national average.
“These companies are ripping you off and ripping us off. And that's why I want to move forward with a price gouging penalty to address this abuse,” he said.
The candidates debated what it means to be "pro-life"
Newsom and Dahle tangled over reproductive rights, using tax dollars to fund abortion care and the meaning of the phrase “pro-life,” which Dahle used to described himself.
“With respect, you're not pro-life,” Newsom replied at one point. “You're pro-government mandated birth. If you were pro-life, you would support our efforts to provide support for child care and preschool and prenatal programs.”
Newsom has vocally opposed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ending federal protections for abortion and has spent more than $2 million to pass Proposition 1, a ballot measure to add reproductive freedom to the state constitution.
“It's foundational, the core values of the state of California and something that I enthusiastically support,” he said.
The Republican challenger said if elected governor, he would support using state tax dollars to fund “reproductive services” excluding abortions, particularly for patients from out of state.
“I know that's a great platform when you're running for the president of the United States. But here in California, people are struggling,” he said, adding he would have vetoed roughly $200 million for reproductive and abortion care providers in this year’s state budget.
Dahle also said he supports the death penalty and would end a moratorium on executions Newsom implemented in 2019. When asked how that squares with his “pro-life” stance, he said: “They've committed a crime against other people and a jury's chosen. I support the death penalty.”
They agree homelessness is a key issue, but differ on solutions
The number of people living on California’s streets grew by more than 22,000 since the pandemic, according to federal data.
Dahle pointed to the problem as another example of California’s Democratic leaders “throwing money” at an issue without improving things.
“The theme of this debate is that the governor has all this great talk, but the policies don't actually fix the problem,” he said. “He said in 2003 when he was the mayor of San Francisco, he was going to end homelessness. I just drove down the street here today, stepping over people, defecating on the street and needles. He hasn't fixed it.”
The state Senator said drug addiction is partly to blame for California's homelessness problem. He said he would declare a state of emergency over the drug fentanyl and work to provide more funding to county mental and behavioral health services.
Newsom again accused Dahle of opposing budget bills that contained additional mental health funding. The governor also touted his efforts to house thousands of people under his “Project Homekey” program, which was started during the pandemic.
When asked about what he tells voters who see growing encampments despite billions in funding to address homelessness, Newsom said future funding to local governments will come with “accountability plans.” He also said there was no statewide plan for housing residents when he took office.
“There's a real strategy, real plan, and there's accountability for the first time,” he said.
One thing Newsom and Dahle agree on: reparations
The two candidates found common ground near the end of the debate, when Dahle said he supported the creation of the California Reparations Task Force and the return of Bruce’s Beach to a Black family in Southern California earlier this year, nearly 100 years after it was seized by the city of Manhattan Beach.
“Those people who were wronged and we made it right,” Dahle said.
The task force is studying and crafting recommendations for reparations for Black residents, which could include cash payments, housing loans, or other proposals. Dahle voted for the legislation to create the task force and Newsom signed it in 2020.
When asked whether he will support the task force’s recommended reparations, which are scheduled to be delivered next June, Newsom said he wants to see them first.
“This task force is convening. We'll see where their recommendations come out and we'll make a determination after the fact,” he said.
CapRadio will rebroadcast the debate Sunday at 6 p.m. and Monday morning at 9 a.m. in place of Insight with Vicki Gonzalez.