California Gubernatorial Candidates Spar in Only Pre-Election Debate

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s gubernatorial candidates agree on one thing: California has become a downright unaffordable place to live. But that was about the only common ground Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his Republican opponent John Cox found during a live public radio debate hosted by KQED on Monday.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

“The issue that defines all other issues in this state is wealth disparity and inequality,” Newsom said. “We have to address the issue of cost of housing, we have to address the issue of affordability broadly, we have to address the issue of homelessness and we have to tackle the vexing issue of health care and the issues related to health care that are devouring the state budget.”

Cox, a San Diego businessman, expressed a vision for California likewise centered around affordability, though he framed the state’s housing crisis as more of a matter of government overregulation than social policy.

“I have a vision of this state being affordable and livable for people,” he said. “I think we can do that if we get rid of the special interest influence in Sacramento, the interest groups that inhabit Sacramento and benefit from the status quo. Average Californians can’t afford to live here and that’s why they’re leaving.”

California isn’t building enough housing to keep up with demand because regulations have stalled the process and made it too expensive, Cox said.

“I’m in the housing business and I build apartments for a living. And I can build apartments in other states that I operate in for a fourth or a fifth of what they cost to build in California. Red tape, taxes, lawsuits, approval processes that take forever. It is government that has driven up the cost of housing in California.”

Cox said he would repeal what he believes is one of the biggest offenders, the California Environmental Quality Act, “which has been turned into an effort by trial lawyers to sue competitors and stop development and that’s limiting the supply of housing.”

Newsom agreed the cost of housing is a production issue, but said it’s also an issue of intentionality.

“There are no statewide housing goals, there are no timelines, no objectives, no strategies to organize at the local level,” he said, arguing the state should step in to incentivize local governments to build housing.

“Mayors have a perverse disincentive for housing. Mayors actually have an incentive for big-box retail. Cities collect retail sales tax, they don’t collect property tax. We would like to have that debate about reallocating that tax base,” Newsom said.

“I think you also have to be a bit punitive as it relates to local government,” he continued. “The Metropolitan Transit Commission is talking about utilizing their ability to take discretionary transit dollars and allocate those transit dollars to municipalities that are meeting their housing production goals and taking those dollars away from those who are not.”

For Cox, these strategies won’t work fast enough. “It’s not enough to apply incentives and disincentives. We have to shorten the approval frame,” he said.

California gubernatorial candidate John Cox speaks at a public event at the University of San Francisco on March 1, 2018. (Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News Service)

Cox said he has “a lot of reform ideas” to make that happen, but as Newsom pointed out, he identified “no specific strategies.”

Moderated by Scott Schafer, the debate was more like a wide-ranging conversation with the candidates, touching on topics like bail reform, gun control and immigration. It was the only scheduled face-off for the pair ahead of the November election.

In August, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that eliminates money bail in favor pretrial risk assessments. Cox said it was “not a good thing,” arguing the law has effectively eliminated an entire private industry and replaced it with more bureaucracy.

For his part, Newsom echoed the rhetoric of lawmakers who led the charge to do away with bail. “It is insidious, from my humble perspective, that African Americans and Latinos are being incarcerated disproportionately for one reason – the size of their bank balance, not the likelihood that they’ll commit a crime before their crimes are officially adjudicated. This bail reform was an extraordinary step forward in a civil rights effort.”

Newsom also slammed Cox for calling gun-control laws a “waste of time.”

“I believe gun-safety laws work and save lives,” Newsom said, “He doesn’t believe that.”

Cox said he’s not looking to change the state’s current gun laws, but thinks stricter gun controls won’t do much to prevent gun crime. He blamed California’s failure to address mental illness, along with the media’s obsession with stories about mass killers, for inciting gun violence.

“Would you join me, Gavin, in agreeing that we should ask the media not to publicize the names and pictures of people who perpetrate these crimes?” Cox asked, something he’s pushed for throughout his campaign.

Newsom didn’t answer, but accused Cox of deflecting.

Turning to immigration, Cox said California’s sanctuary-state law prohibiting local law enforcement from turning detained undocumented immigrants over to federal immigration authorities has constrained the police from keeping communities safe.

“I think if someone is here illegally and engaged in criminal activity, I think it’s up to our public officials to kick them out,” Cox said, adding he wants the law repealed either through the Legislature or “by vote of the people.”

However, Cox said he doesn’t approve of immigration officials rounding people up at schools and courthouses.

“I don’t want my family to have their papers checked everywhere they are; I don’t want any family in California to have that. We should be having papers checked at the border,” he said.

Newsom said he supported the law, but added: “Sanctuary policy is not a shield for criminal activity.  No one is suggesting that people have the right to unfettered violence, regardless of their immigration status. The question is due process.”

He said the law should be realistic, not ideological, noting the law’s many exemptions where California can collaborate with federal authorities.

Bemoaning the lack of time, Shafer said they still hadn’t touched on pension reform, education and water issues.

Cox said he is open to another debate to address those topics.

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