SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The four leading Democrats vying to become California’s next governor spent much of a 90-minute joint appearance Tuesday evening touting their progressive credentials and agreeing with each other in supporting abortion rights.
The candidates — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin — spoke at a forum put on by the advocacy group NARAL [National Abortion Rights Action League] Pro-Choice California.
The spirit of the gathering was decidedly more congenial than two earlier debates this month, when candidates sometimes hotly disputed one another’s positions on a few key issues, such as bringing universal, government-funded health care to California.
In his closing statement to the audience, Villaraigosa said that “all four of us would be the strongest defenders of a woman’s right to choose and for protecting reproductive health care choices for women.”
Earlier during the forum, a moderator asked the four their thoughts about “the imposition of religious beliefs on health care,” such as access to contraceptives.
Eastin concluded her answer by saying: “I respect everybody’s right to go to church, but not to bring your church against my body and its needs.”
“Hear, hear,” Newsom responded. Saying he agreed with Eastin’s “sentiment and passion,” he called the religious issue the country’s “next big cultural war.”
“We’ve got to step up and step in, and not give people the right to discriminate against other people,” he said.
A panel of three women asked a series of questions for each candidate to answer. Unlike a traditional debate, the candidates did not respond directly to one another’s answers.
Nor did they need to. They all agreed, for instance, that Gov. Jerry Brown was wrong to have vetoed the NARAL-sponsored Reproductive Health Nondiscrimination Act. It would have banned employers, including religious organizations, from taking an adverse employment action against an employee for using “any drug, device, or medical service” related to reproduction, such as the morning-after pill or in vitro fertilization.
In his October 2017 veto message, Brown said workers were adequately protected by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which does allow exceptions for religious institutions.
Eastin said the veto was one of the worst decisions Brown ever made.
Villaraigosa said he would have signed the bill if he’d been governor, and Newsom said he not only would have signed it, he would have co-sponsored it.
Chiang said he was “on the same page” with them and that he would make the bill part of his platform. He also mentioned that the bill’s author, San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, had endorsed him. “She obviously trusts me,” he said.
All four backed the idea of selling birth control pills over the counter without a doctor’s prescription. And they supported proposed legislation to require health centers at state colleges and universities to offer the morning-after pill for students.
“These young women have every right to have access to reproductive health care,” Villaraigosa said. “It allows them to continue in school.”
When a panelist in a follow-up question asked if they understood how controversial the “abortion pill” is and that “you’d be taking on religious institutions,” Chiang and Newsom shrugged and waved the objection away.
“Absolutely,” Newsom said.
The candidates struggled a bit when one of the moderators, NARAL Pro-Choice California state director Amy Everitt, pressed them about what they would do as governor to crack down on what she called fake pregnancy centers run by anti-abortion groups.
A 2015 state law called the Reproductive FACT Act requires anti-abortion pregnancy centers to post notices informing clients about the availability of free or low-cost abortion and contraception services. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in November to decide whether the act violates the clinics’ speech rights.
Villaraigosa said the state should use its existing health care laws to disclose how the centers “aren’t really health care centers [but] centers to interfere with the right to choose.”
Newsom said he would use the bully pulpit to call out the centers. He said the state should “invest in alternatives” by trying to ensure its Medicaid reimbursement rates are adequate to cover abortion and other services.
Like several speakers Tuesday, Eastin noted that 40 to 45 percent of the counties in California do not have a place for women to get abortions locally. Striking a theme hit by several of her colleagues, she said the state must do more to provide health care and other services to people in rural areas.
As for the anti-abortion clinics, “we have to shine the bright light of truth on these things,” she said.
“California has to become much stronger about its stand about a whole host of things because the orange-haired racist misogynist in Washington is not shining a light of truth on much about public policy in this country,” Eastin added.
The candidates several times tried to move beyond the panelists’ narrowly focused questions on reproductive rights to other issues, such as pay equity, affordable housing and universal health care.
They also touched on some of their major campaign talking points. Newsom several times mentioned his support for state-funded health coverage for all, similar to the one he helped bring in as mayor of San Francisco. He said California, including its private businesses, spends $367.5 billion on health care but still leaves about 3 million people uninsured. He has noted the figure is close to the $400 billion estimated cost if the state were to take on all its residents’ health care needs.
Chiang stressed his long experience in California’s financial offices as state treasurer, controller and tax board member. “I am the person who has the record … but if you don’t have the money, you can’t pay for all that stuff,” he said, taking a jab at Newsom’s plan.
Another recurrent theme was the problems of poorer women in obtaining health care and other services. “The issue of reproductive freedom is really an issue of economic justice,” Villaraigosa said.
The gubernatorial candidates are next scheduled to square off before a group of African-American women voters in Sacramento in February.