FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – The battle for the governorship of California came to the Central Valley Wednesday evening, as four of the top five candidates faced off in Fresno.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, businessman John Cox, Assemblyman Travis Allen and former State Superintendent of Public Education Delaine Eastin debated live on a wide range of issues from California’s high taxes to the opioid crisis.
The candidates wasted few opportunities to take swings at one another, including a heated moment in which the poll-leading Republican Cox accused Allen of being Villaraigosa’s lapdog during a discussion over the border wall and Cox’ changing position. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, is second in polling to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has declined to do any more debates until May. Eastin is also running as a Democrat.
California’s current Gov. Jerry Brown cannot seek reelection, and his lame duck administration quickly became a punching bag among the candidates. Brown’s plan to bring high speed rail to California was called the “crazy train” and the “white elephant train” by Cox, a Republican, while his plan to construct twin tunnels to supply water to Southern California was called “a really bad idea” by Eastin.
All four candidates said they believe the state’s chronic water shortage to be a key issue this election, but the solutions were less agreed upon. Both Cox and Allen said they support the use of bond funds voted for in 2014 to complete new reservoirs and enhance existing dams, along with ending the tunnel project.
“As a businessman, I am going to talk about getting things accomplished,” Cox said. “The trouble is the sloshing around of money in Sacramento. Voters should hold the politicians responsible.”
Eastin shared her experiences in Israel, where some 40 percent of water is reused.
“In this state, everyone wants to do something new and fast,” Eastin said. “The reality is that we need long range planning. The first thing you do is make a plan.”
New projects weren’t the only solution offered. Villaraigosa said he thinks that smarter water usage, along with completing the dam projects can put California on the right path.
“We could do a lot more in terms of water conservation,” Villaraigosa said. “When I was mayor of Los Angeles, I took people to two days a week of watering, and we used the same amount of water as LA 40 years earlier, when the population was a lot smaller.”
The candidates predictably split along partisan lines when questions about illegal immigration, DACA and the California Values Act came up.
Allen vowed to eliminate California’s sanctuary state law within his first 100 days. His district was the first to opt out of the law.
“Let’s be clear, we are not talking about someone’s grandma sitting on the couch,” Allen said. “We are talking about people committing crimes while they are here, in our communities, and they are being sheltered here.”
The Los Angeles Police Department, according to Villaraigosa, has been doing what the California Values Act sets as law since 1978, not because of views on immigrants, but as a matter of practicality.
“LA was the epicenter of immigrants in the United States, and it built trust and support in the neighborhoods,” Villaraigosa said. “Under my leadership, violent crime dropped 49 percent, more than any city in California.”
While Villaraigosa was quick to point out the decline in crime statistics, he was less enthusiastic when California’s out-of-control housing crisis was mentioned. Homelessness has surged to an estimated 55,000 people in the last six years in Los Angeles.
“The housing crisis is causing the high cost of living in California,” Villaraigosa said. He said solution is to work across the aisle with Republicans and to reinstate redevelopment programs cut during the recession.
Cox and Allen agreed that a major issue is the high cost of construction and the onerous process of getting projects approved that has contributed to the crisis. Both said they see reform of California Environmental Quality Act as essential to solving the issue.
The candidates also disagreed during discussion of the opioid crisis, with Cox and Allen pointing to the number of homeless and poor people who are addicted to heroin, while Villaraigosa and Eastin said they see the issue in a larger context.
The candidates all agreed that more needs to be done to provide mental health for addicts, but no concrete solutions were readily available.
The greatest area of disagreement centered on the gas tax. Allen and Cox are aligned to bring a repeal measure to the June ballot and, combined, are submitting over 900,000 signatures in support of it.
“Jerry Brown lied when he said ‘No new taxes without voter approval’,” Allen said. “He bribed four legislators to get the votes, and as a legislator, I couldn’t stop him.”
Allen said he promised to leave the completed section of the high speed rail, an overpass in Fresno County, and to hang a sign from it that reads “Jerry Brown’s Legacy.”
Villaraigosa and Eastin both said they believe that high speed rail has a future in California.