SAN FRANCISCO — Donald Trump’s shadow loomed large in California’s only scheduled gubernatorial debate Monday, with Democrat Gavin Newsom insisting his GOP opponent threatened to advance the policies of “Trump and Trumpism’’ and Republican John Cox repeatedly sidestepping efforts to link him with the president who has enthusiastically endorsed his campaign.
Cox, a multi-millionaire businessman, cast the Democratic lieutenant governor as a member of the “political class” who’s been “backed by billionaires” and portrayed himself as the change agent best positioned to represent “average” Californians strapped by high taxes, a declining quality of life and a failing education system.
Newsom has “been in office for 16 years in California and he’s not done much’’ to address the state’s key problems, said Cox, who argued that as a successful businessman, he had the know how to clean up Sacramento’s inefficiency and insider politics.
“My vision of California is where people can afford to buy a house and pay the rent…they can send their children to a school that’s not failing,’’ he said, responding to questions from KQED’s political editor Scott Shafer. Vowing “get rid of the special interest influence in Sacramento,’’ Cox said that he was running because “the status quo isn’t working for average Californians; they can’t afford to live here.’’
But in a series of sharp exchanges, Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, argued that he is the only candidate in the race who has the experience and detailed policies that would address “the issue of wealth disparity and social inequality’’ in California, which is both the world’s fifth-largest economy and the state with the highest level of poverty. “The difference between myself and my opponent John Cox is that we actually have plans and strategies” to address those issues, Newsom said.
And he repeatedly warned that Cox has aligned himself completely to “the policies of Trump and Trumpism’’ in a state that has firmly rejected the president’s agenda.
Cox, both before and after the debate, appeared reluctant to tie himself to the president on key issues.
Speaking to POLITICO before the debate, Cox repeatedly refused to express a view on the president’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed this weekend — the GOP nominee insisted he had not been focused on the issue that had consumed the country for the last week.
“I’m so concentrated on what I’m doing here…I’m so focused on California’s problems and issues, I don’t want to distract from that effort,’’ he said. “We have no idea…Tony Kennedy was appointed by Ronald Reagan, and he turned into a swing vote. Maybe that will happen with Mr. Kavanaugh, I have no clue.”
Asked if the Kavanaugh confirmation will energize GOP voters — as Trump has suggested at campaign rallies, Cox also deferred. “People, I think, are already energized by the facts on the ground here in California. I don’t think they need any extra boost from Washington,’’ he said.
Newsom pounded Cox eight times in the debate on the issue of Trump, arguing at one point that Cox — a former two-time House candidate in Illinois, U.S. Senate candidate and presidential candidate — has advanced views that are out of touch with those of California voters.
And in recent years, Newsom contended, Cox has echoed the president on key matters — including failing to acknowledge the widely held scientific view that human actions have unequivocally contributed to climate change.
Newsom also raised the issue of Cox’s past statements opposing same sex marriage, and reprised one of Cox’s past remarks that “homosexuality leads to bestiality” — to which Cox complained, “this is all meant to take the topic away from the important things.”
Cox insisted he has “evolved” on the issue of gay marriage, as he said Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did. But he also chafed at questions related to key social issues in which he is aligned with Trump’s views, including abortion and gun control.
“I am not running to change one iota” on social issues, he said at one point. “None of those challenges are going to get people a better, more affordable house. None of those challenges will reduce the price of living, or get us better water.”
But Newsom noted that Cox is “a lifetime member of the NRA [National Rifle Association]” who has refused to back California legislation calling for better background checks on assault weapons and ammunition sales, which are among the toughest laws in the nation.
Cox, when asked for his views on gun safety, called for the media to “stop publicizing the names and pictures of these perpetrators of gun crimes,’’ adding “I think California has done a lot to keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally deranged.’’
The two differed sharply on Prop. 6, which calls for the repeal of the gas tax backed by Gov. Jerry Brown — Cox and the California Republican Party have enthusiastically supported the measure on the November ballot.
Newsom noted that California’s largest urban areas, including San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, “have some of the worst road conditions in the United States,” and Cox’s plan “is to make things worse.”
“The legislature and the governor finally addressed this in a substantive way. He’s talking about taking $5 billion a year” away from road improvements and public safety improvements,” without offering a specific plan as to how to fix California’s crumbling infrastructure, Newsom said.
Cox insisted that the gas tax only penalizes California’s working class, while the governor is sitting on a surplus in Sacramento. “Why are we digging into the pockets of people who are already paying” some of the nation’s highest gas taxes, he asked.
Though Cox admits not voting for President Trump in 2016, the Republican businessman has since expressed full-throated support of the president’s policies on issues like building a border wall with Mexico and in opposing California’s sanctuary cities law. Trump has in recent weeks expressed support for Cox on Twitter, while jabbing repeatedly at Newsom — without ever mentioning his name — in campaign rallies.
Cox, who has never been elected to office, has dumped nearly more than $5 million of his own money into the race and remains his campaign’s single biggest contributor.
After promising to release his taxes before the June 2018 primary, Cox has since flipped on the position — telling the San Francisco Chronicle last month that he has no intention of ever releasing his taxes, saying that investors in his companies deserve their privacy.
Republican strategist Sean Walsh, a former adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and member of the Bush White House, said he believed Cox missed an opportunity.
“He had one shot here’’ with Newsom, but failed to succinctly lay out, “in a very hard-hitting way,’’ the differences between them on key issues like sanctuary cities, state debt, affordable housing and taxes, Walsh said.
“He didn’t draw the contrast,“ Walsh said. “Who are the evil, big money donors behind Gavin Newsom? He just didn’t get there.”
Walsh said he wasn’t surprised that Cox studiously avoided talk of Trump. “You kind of have to do that, to be honest, in this state,” he said. “Trump is not overly popular with California women.’’
In solidly blue California — where Republicans lag behind Democrats by 19 percentage points in voter registration — “you don’t want to embrace President Trump in a statewide race,” Walsh said.
The one-hour forum on San Francisco’s KQED-FM radio between Newsom and Cox will likely be the only opportunity for voters in the nation’s most populous state to hear the candidates live and unscripted in debate.
The gubernatorial debate took place as the race appears to be tightening. A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll shows that Newsom’s 22-point lead has been cut in half since July — though he still holds a commanding 11-point margin against Cox.