LOS ANGELES (CN) – A pair of Democrats running for California governor met with black faith leaders in Los Angeles on Friday, promising to invest in early childhood education, hold police accountable in wrongful death cases and back a public option for health insurance if they are elected in November.
After a prayer and several renditions of traditional Black gospels, candidates Delaine Eastin and Antonio Villaraigosa were pressed on immigration, gun control, and universal basic income. Over 30 clergy members of African Methodist Episcopal – a network of 25 churches and over 30,000 voters in LA County – attended the event.
Other candidates, including front-runner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and current State Treasurer John Chiang, were invited but did not attend.
Bishop Clement Fugh told attendees that with over 18,000 voters in the state, AME members have an impact on the race for governor and all candidates should know that.
Fugh made it clear to the room that no endorsements would be handed out during the election cycle and pressed clergy not to endorse from the pulpit.
Villaraigosa – who told the audience he’d been awake for 30 hours so far on his pre-primary tour – boasted about his credentials as a former community organizer, labor leader and former chair of the Democratic National Convention with deep roots in the black community.
He said that being the mayor of Los Angeles – with its booming economy, complex government and large population – is closest to the role of the governor.
“No one in this race is better qualified to serve as governor,” he said.
Villaraigosa spoke about an issue that hits home in the black community: the criminal legal system.
“When I go to [visit] prisons, [inmates] look like us,” he said, referring to people of color. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with that and we have to fix it.”
A May 15 report on pretrial bail found black residents in LA paid $10.2 million in bail in 2017, largely through nonrefundable deposits for bail bonds.
Eastin said she had left public life as an elected official but is now vying for a return after seeing years of disinvestment in public education.
“[California] is number one in prisoner spending but 41st in per-pupil spending,” she said. “Those are not my values and budgets happen to be statements of values.”
Audience members clapped when she proposed making state and community colleges free and would pay for it by reassessing property taxes on commercial and industrial properties across the state.
A moderator asked why black faith leaders should back Senate Bill 54, California’s so-called sanctuary state bill.
Eastin invigorated the otherwise subdued crowd by reading from the Old Testament.
“We have to protect neighbors, love them as ourselves,” Eastin said. “How can you call yourself a Christian and not protect immigrants?”
Villaraigosa said people falsely believe immigrants who commit crimes will get a pass from the state. “Immigrants actually commit less crime than we do,” he said.
With only days to go before the June 5 primary election, both candidates struggle to overcome recent polls that place them behind front-runners.
Republican businessman John Cox is likely to hold off Villaraigosa for the second place slot in California’s top-two primary system after gaining an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Only 13 percent of prospective voters backed Villaraigosa in Thursday’s UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll.
Eastin, a former assemblywoman and state superintendent of public instruction, backs universal health care, a living wage and is strong on education but hasn’t received support from the state’s largest education groups.
Newsom, a Democrat, remains the front-runner in California’s gubernatorial race.
That hasn’t stopped Eastin from pressing forward with a call for mandatory all-day kindergarten, which she said is part of the dream “to give every child a wonderful life.”
That resonated with Rev. Carolyn Baskin-Bell of Second AME Church, who said she was impressed with Eastin’s knowledge on education issues.
Homelessness is an important issue for Baskin-Bell’s church members. She was happy both candidates said the state needs to do more to support cities in the work of housing their homeless residents.
Ending the school-to-prison pipeline is a critical topic for Rev. Rosalynn Brookins of Walker Temple Church, but she said she wants candidates to address the challenges of people re-entering society after leaving prison.
“They have issues getting jobs, housing. It’s almost like they’re serving time twice,” Brookins said. “We must create ways for them to re-enter [society] fully.”
Brookins said she appreciated the candidates’ thoughtful responses but also emphasized the need for political accountability.
“My concern is that politicians make promises but after elections they don’t manifest the answer to those promises,” Brookins said. “Is there going to be a follow-through on promises?”