By Don Benedictus, Courthouse News
In the first debate among the six gubernatorial candidates vying to follow Gov. Jerry Brown Jr. in November, the four leading Democratic candidates agreed Saturday that President Donald Trump is a racist.
The top two Republican candidates defended Trump’s immigration policies but did not comment on his attitudes or his now-infamous language disparaging Haiti and countries in Africa.
From its opening question, the debate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles displayed the sharp partisan divide in U.S. politics.
Candidates on both sides threw some sharp barbs at the man who is running well ahead in polls and fundraising — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — particularly for his support of a single-payer healthcare system for California. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called it “snake oil.”
The five men and one woman spoke at a town hall-style forum held at USC as part of the school’s annual Empowerment Conference. About 3,000 people from greater Los Angeles registered for the event, with many watching on large screens outside the university’s 1,235-capacity Bovard Auditorium.
The first question was about Trump’s “s***hole countries” remark, and The New York Times editorial board labeling the president a racist. Villaraigosa was the first called on: “I’m surprised it took The New York Times so long,” he said.
The three other Democrats on the stage — Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin — said much the same thing.
“It’s pretty self-evident that he’s a racist,” said Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco.
But Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen praised Trump for working to solve the problem of border security and illegal immigration. Allen called for reversing a brand-new law that declares California a sanctuary state.
“Californians do not want to shelter people in our state illegally (who are) committing crimes … and we’ve got to make sure that California enforces federal immigration law,” he said, drawing a chorus of boos from the audience.
San Diego businessman John Cox, the other Republican on the stage, said California should work on solving its own, “not demonize the president.”
The forum was moderated by a local TV anchor and a public radio political reporter. They posed a question on each of 10 broad topics and gave each candidate a minute to answer.
The Democrats and Republicans split sharply on immigration. When Allen again complained about illegal immigrants who commit crimes, Villaraigosa quickly cited a National Academy of Sciences study showing that immigrants — “including Mexicans” — commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born Americans.
Chiang, who supported DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, program, said the California economy needs immigrants to grow.
Republican Cox seemed to agree with that point, while also supporting a border wall. He drew boos from the audience, however, when he said: “We also need to welcome people who can contribute to the American dream, who can pick the fruits and vegetables that have made California No. 1 in agriculture.”
The attacks on frontrunner Newsom began during the discussion of education when he mentioned San Francisco’s achievements during the time he was mayor.
Villaraigosa interrupted to cite a September 2017 study that found San Francisco has the worst black student achievement of any county in California.
Chiang jumped in to add that the study also showed Latino and Pacific Islanders performing worse there than in other California counties.
Newsom did not address their comments. He said he supports early childhood education and increased prenatal care for mothers. “We talk about the achievement gap; we need to talk about the readiness gap,” he said.
Allen called for giving more money to all schools, including charter schools, and allowing unvaccinated students to attend school.
Cox endorsed getting rid of teacher tenure.
Villaraigosa and Chiang also mocked Newsom’s promise to bring a single-payer healthcare system to California.
Both said they support the idea “philosophically,” in Villaraigosa’s word, but they criticized what they implied was a vague plan to pay for the expensive system, projected to cost the state as much as $400 billion a year.
“You don’t have a plan,” Villaraigosa told Newsom.
Chiang said the state should ease into single-payer by first adopting a “government-option” program to fund health insurance.
Newsom said the current system costs California $367.5 billion each year. A simple payroll tax could free businesses and individuals from paying any health insurance premiums.
Eastin also supported a single-payer system.
But the two Republicans disdained the idea, sarcastically.
Allen said that if he becomes governor: “I will never force you to go to the DMV to see your doctor.”
Cox said: “Why stop at healthcare? Why don’t we have single-payer food? Why don’t we have single-payer housing?”
According to a poll released just before Christmas, about 26 percent of likely voters support Newsom, compared to 17 percent for Villaraigosa, 9 percent each for Allen and Cox and 5 percent each for Chiang and Eastin. About 28 percent were undecided.
Newsom also is well ahead in fundraising, with about $19.1 million to Chiang’s $7.4 million and Villaraigosa’s $6.2 million. Cox has loaned $3 million to his campaign. Eastin and Allen have $400,000 and $200,000 respectively, according to the Los Angeles Times.