LOS ANGELES (CN) – Hundreds of people packed inside the Bovard Auditorium at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles Monday to hear five candidates for governor debate on an array of complex challenges in the Golden State such as immigration, surging cost of living and mounting homelessness.
With the June 5 gubernatorial primary fast-approaching, Republican and Democratic candidates for governor quarreled for the seat of 40th governor of California. The debate, moderated by NBC’s Colleen Williams and Conan Nolan, focused heavily on policy with candidates sparring over plans to fund solutions to the state’s mounting crises.
California State Assemblyman Travis Allen and San Diego County resident John Cox both blamed Democratic leadership in Sacramento for the surge in the cost of living, lack of affordable housing and crumbling infrastructure in the state. They said they would implement tax cuts beginning with the so-called gas tax.
Delaine Eastin, Democratic former state assemblywoman and state superintendent said the state needed to invest heavily in education, which would double as a safety plan.
“We need to spend more on preschool and less on San Quentin,” she said, referring to the state’s infamous prison in the San Francisco Bay.
Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former Los Angeles mayor, said he would replicate his “proven track record” of policies that grow the middle class and support crumbling infrastructure.
State treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat, said he has already saved the state billions by identifying waste, as the “most successful auditor in history.” He said he has already pulled the state “from the brink of collapse” during the recent recession.
Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California and a former Mayor of San Francisco, declined an invitation to participate in the debate.
Sacramento businessman Doug Ose dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for governor in February.
With a population hovering above 40 million, the state would be the sixth-largest economy in the world if it was a stand-alone nation. Southern California hosts 27 percent of voters in the state. The state’s $2.5 trillion economy is the largest in the country. It’s also a state gripped by a homelessness crisis.
Homelessness was a focal point of the debate. All candidates agreed a set of comprehensive and immediate actions were needed to address the issue.
Eastin said she would declare a state of emergency if elected governor, saying she has never seen so many homeless women and children. She said she would support legislation for rent control, to ease the burden on low income renters in the state.
Chiang said the state needed to identify funding for a range of measures to end homelessness such as programs that detect mental health issues earlier in life. He said he would appoint a homelessness “czar” that would bring public and private entities together to address the crisis.
Villagairosa said it was important to remember there are many families who are homeless, not just people addicted to drugs.
“Some families are a major medical operation away from becoming homeless,” he said.
Allen said the state should provide transients with support on housing, job search and health, but that homeless people from other states would get “a one way ticket back home.”
Last week, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $70.5 million on permanent housing for the homeless, and to create temporary homeless camps.
The candidates also agreed that more affordable housing needed to be built, but disagreed on how to do that.
Cox touted his plan to build 3 million homes if elected governor, citing the California Environmental Quality Act as a barrier to construction of homes that would address the state housing shortage.
On the question of immigration, moderators asked if candidates would support SB 54, the so-called sanctuary state law that limits cooperation between local law enforcement officials and federal immigration enforcement.
Allen and Cox stuck to their party’s position saying they would repeal the measure. Allen praised U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Justice Department suit filed earlier this year targeting the bill.
Recently, the City of Los Alamitos voted to opt out of the state’s sanctuary bill, siding with the federal government on immigration policy. Allen, who represents Los Alamitos, said he was disseminating a petition to get more cities to opt out of SB 54.
Democratic candidates were unified in their defiance of President Trump’s stance on immigration, saying the state would protect its immigrant population.
Chiang said his parents are immigrants who came to the “most aspirational place on Earth.”
He struck a diplomatic tone, saying he would try to find common ground with Trump but that “ultimately, actions speak louder than tweets” on immigration policy.
Eastin said everyone in the auditorium was “likely a descendant of immigrants.” She said she supports DACA recipients and other undocumented people “whether they work in our universities, building our homes or picking our crops.”
During President Trump’s recent visit to the state, Gov. Jerry Brown invited him to observe construction of the high speed rail project in the Central Valley that would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.
A March 21 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that a majority of California residents support the state’s efforts to build a high speed rail project. Fifty-three percent of all respondents said they supported the project compared to 43 percent who opposed it.
There’s strong support in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, while more opposition in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, according to the poll.
Eastin and Chiang said they would marginally support the plan only after identifying alternative sources of funding for the project.
Both Allen and Cox said they would defund the project if elected governor. Cox called it a “testament to waste” of public tax dollars.
Villagairosa said the project was critical in connecting the two “main economic engines of the state.”
Due to a change in state election rules, Villaraigosa isn’t allowed to introduce himself to voters as the former L.A. mayor. Instead, he’s chosen to call himself a “public policy advisor” on the ballot.
All of the candidates committed to support policies that would eliminate public funds being used to settle sexual harassment claims made against state elected officials.
There are more than 18,980,481 registered voters in California as of January 2018, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla. The number is 1.3 million more than at the same time before the last gubernatorial primary.
Democrats represent over 45 percent of the electorate, while Republicans stand at 25 percent. Another 25 percent registered without indicating a party preference.
In a statement, Padilla said voters should update their registration if they’ve moved or changed their name since the last election.
Under the state’s top-two system, the two candidates with the most votes in the June 5 election would feature as the only candidates to run in the general election on November 6, regardless of party affiliation.
Jack Knott, dean of the school of public policy called the event a “pivotal moment in political life of the state” and the country, given the state’s history as a testing ground of progressive policies.
“Like the saying says, ‘as California goes, so goes the nation.’”