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California’s candidates for governor square off in their first debate

Ko Blix
John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom, and Antonio Villaraigosa are running for governor


Ready? Set? Go! The horse race for the 2018 election is on.

Four candidates hoping to become the state’s next governor met to speak before the National Union of Healthcare Workers in Anaheim this Sunday. Each is looking to succeed Jerry Brown, who’s been governor for nearly four terms total, dating back to the 1970s.


The participants included State Treasurer John Chiang, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

All are Democrats; the union says it invited Republican candidates, but none accepted.

According to veteran moderator John Donvan: “This is not, strictly speaking, a debate. It’s a conversation with a competitive edge.”

And so the initial “conversation” between the candidates began.

Health Care in California

The first questions had to do with health care. Delaine Eastin and Gavin Newsom both came out very strongly for Senate Bill 562 — “The Healthy California Act” — which would make a single payer healthcare system.

Right now that bill is stagnant in the California State Senate. Newsom says it’s because of misinformation.

“I think there’s a lot of mythology about the cost of single payer, that somehow we’re adding on top of an existing multi-payer system,” he said, “when in fact it’s about relocating existing resources and using them more effectively and more efficiently by replacing the current multi-payer system ... Single payer is the way to go to reduce cost and provide comprehensive access.”

While the audience of unionized health care workers liked that, Antonio Villaraigosa had a more nuanced take.

“The truth of the matter is SB562 did not have a funding stream,” he said. “[W]hat I would do as governor is to create a public option that allows people to buy into medicare, to address a drug formulary that is out of control, reduce our drug costs, and do everything we can to ensure that we’re ready for single payer.”

Delaine Eastin was asked a hypothetical question about a law requiring hospitals to allow unionization. She made a strong statement expressing just how far she’d go to support worker’s rights.

“I wouldn’t just sit in the office and say we’re for them, quietly,” she said. “I would be out there marching — as the governor — marching with the union to say: ‘This hospital has to play by the rules.’”

Contextualizing the conversation

Following on on the health care question, which was asked by a nurse in Napa County, Gavin Newsom took the chance to talk about visiting the fire-ravaged region.

“I had the privilege and burden of being up there for three days,” he said. “It is jaw-dropping. And the challenges up there are made even more acute, not just at the hospital, but for an entire community and a workforce that have been displaced from their homes.”

Moderator John Donvan interrupted, telling him he was off-point from the question. The exchange was somewhat surprising and awkward.

Villaraigosa jumped in, telling Donvan, “In fairness to [Gavin Newsom], you did say the person was from Napa.”

The interjection went over well with the audience.

“When a point is scored against the moderator,” Donvan said, “the moderator must admit that was a well-scored point, and you were well within your rights,” adding that Villaraigosa was “quite a wingman.”

The tone set by all four candidates was cordial and supportive. But when it came to talking about actually working with elected officials to improve life for constituents, Delaine Eastin made it clear that she didn’t need to play nice.

“When I was superintendent of public instruction for the state,” she said, “I challenged the governor to reduce class size in kindergarten through third grade ... I’d gone from a classroom in San Francisco, a public school with 44 kids, down to San Carlos where I was the twentieth kid. The teacher in San Francisco was good. The one in San Carlos was good. But one had 44 and one had 20. [W]hen Pete Wilson wouldn’t go along, I sued him. And we won the lawsuit, and we did class-size reduction in kindergarten through third grade.”

As the audience applauded, Donvan asked how the anecdote shows whether she can persuade people.

“You try to persuade people, and if you don’t persuade them, you sue them if you have to,” she replied. “You do what you have to do to get the job done.”

The state versus the federal government

Another potentially contentious topic the next governor will face is California’s relationship with the U.S. government.

Jerry Brown signed SB54, also known as the Sanctuary State Bill, on October 5, putting California at odds with federal policy regarding enforcement of immigration laws.

Gavin Newsom said it’s incumbent on the next governor to lead the national debate on immigration reform.

“We have more at stake in this state than any other state in the nation,” he said. “We have more Dreamers in this state. We have more immigrants in this state. And we have more undocumented residents in this state. And, yes, we have a new drought in California, and that’s a drought of farmworkers.”

The discussion allowed Villaraigosa a chance to say a memorable line.

“You know, at this time of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican hysteria, who better to lead a national debate than a governor named Villaraigosa?” he asked. “And in that regard, I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

He said they would use legal challenges, and make sure that federal officials have warrants if they seek to make arrests of undocumented immigrants.

And he referred to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, in which states are given broad powers that "are not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States.”

“We’re going to aggressively use that 10th Amendment,” Villaraigosa said. “We’re going to drag this out … we’ve already seen with respect to the ban, every time they do a new iteration, it gets defeated in the courts.”

When Villaraigosa’s time ran out, State Treasurer John Chiang jumped in with a set of personal anecdotes.


“This is personal,” he said. “I have Brenda on my staff, who’s a Dreamer. She graduated from UCLA. She just got married on Friday ... My parents were immigrants who came to this country with very little. My dad: three shirts; two pairs of pants; less than $100 in his pocket. That’s the American story. When you have good, well-intended people who are trying to make this country better, who aspire, who are community participants, we have to fight for those individuals.”

The bottom line

That brought the panel to a discussion of economics, and this question for the candidates: Aside from the cost of healthcare, what are California’s most pressing issues? Chiang chose a topic familiar to Bay Area residents:

“Number one, housing,” he said. “It was my top priority statement when I became the Treasurer of the State of California ... I’ve effectively increased financing for new and rehabilitated housing by 80 percent. We can’t keep driving more people into poverty. We have to make sure that we build more housing throughout the state.”

Chiang gave several concrete examples of how he’s worked to address the housing crisis. 

“I was pushing for a $6-$9 billion bond that the legislature; when they reworked it, it was a $4 billion bond,” he said, “so, yes, I was asking for additional money ... [And] I improved the processes. Worked with the private sector, both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, charitable organizations and developers to increase the stock of housing.”

Villaraigosa went with the class angle.

“I think the most pressing issue facing this state is the issue of two Californias,” he said. “We live in a great state, the sixth largest economy in the world, with the highest effective poverty rate in the United States of America. Democrats have forgotten what it means to fight, to grow our economy, to grow more middle class jobs.”

He put an emphasis on building up California’s middle class.


“We’ve got to grow the pie,” he said. “We’ve got to grow this economy. And we’ve got to grow more middle class jobs. By 2030, in 13 years, we’ll be a million-and-a-half down in the number of college graduates we need.”

Villaraigosa also referred several times to “the silver tsunami” — that’s the growing population of people over the age of 65. In California, it’s projected that population will double in just over a decade.

Delaine Eastin focused on a different population.


“The biggest issue I think has to be education,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we had a big recession and Arnold Schwarzenegger took 20 percent of the cuts out of child development, which was only three percent of the state budget. All that money has still not been restored. We have over 600,000 parents on waiting lists to put their kids in child development.”

Gavin Newsom, who has made millions of dollars in wineries, hotels, bars, and restaurants, said California’s biggest problems are rooted in its economy.


“Affordability,” he said. “If there’s one word that defines at least my year out on this campaign trail, it’s the word ‘affordability.’ We’re 49 out of 50 in the nation in per capita housing units. By one estimate, we’re 3.5 million housing units short of where we need to be, to really get the cost curve down in this state. And that has to be delivered by 2025.”

Newsom made myriad points, connecting disparate concepts as he often did while serving as mayor of San Francisco.

“A big part of any housing question is dealing with renter protection as well, which is something we need to advance as a principle in this state,” he said to applause. “The job thing is profoundly important. The number one job for American men in the United States of America is driving. You’ve got 3.5 million truck drivers that are in peril of being out of work with these driverless trucks. We’ve got an automated economy, now, that is coming our way. And we need to prepare for that. And it requires a completely different thinking. Look, as a mayor that did universal preschool, [I think] it’s important to frontload education, absolutely. But it’s also important to backload education. And it’s about that skills gap. And it’s about lifelong learning. Education begins when you graduate, in many respects. And so we have to have a different paradigm, and a different framework, to address this growing skills gap, and to address the growing underemployment that exists in this state and this nation.”

Final thoughts from the first debate

In their closing statements, three of the four candidates focused on themes they’d already addressed during the debate: health care reform; rebuilding the American dream; bringing the state’s economic classes closer together. But only one of these Democrats, John Chiang, brought up the elephant in everybody’s room.

“Since President Trump assumed office, nearly every day, I think, ‘Not on our watch,’” he said. “Not on our watch are we going to let Wall Street dictate our future. Not on our watch are we going to have toxic leadership divide us. Not on our watch are we going to have people pull back and lose their healthcare. We know that together, we stand for something better. Together, we can build a road of prosperity that includes all of us.”

Ultimately, the four candidates all shared similar sentiments. And moderator John Donvan, who’s presided over more than 100 debates, noted how there were no personal attacks by one candidate against another.

This was the first debate in the gubernatorial race, but these four have been campaigning for several months now. After the event, the National Union of Healthcare Workers voted on which Democrat it would endorse. The top vote getters were Gavin Newsom and Delaine Eastin, and after a run-off, Newsom won with just over half the votes.

It was a good weekend for the Lieutenant Governor: On Saturday, he also won the endorsement of the California Teachers Association.

There’s still time for the others to catch up, though. Election Day is just over a year away.



Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.