Gubernatorial candidates John Cox and Gavin Newsom faced off in an hour-long radio debate on KQED's Forum on Monday morning that covered plenty of policy ground, but did not reveal much new information about the candidates.
Cox, a Republican businessman from San Diego, and Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor of California, staked out predictable positions on issues ranging from housing and affordability to climate change to criminal justice.
Cox tried to walk a fine line between tying himself to President Donald Trump and not positioning himself too far to the right in liberal California. Cox repeatedly cited problems he sees in California — ones he blames on Democrats — but demurred on how he would actually solve them.
"We will talk about that after I'm elected governor," Cox said when pressed for specifics about how to lower the costs of building in California. "I have a lot of reform ideas."
Newsom appeared more eager to delve into policy issues and repeatedly tied himself to outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown.
His most surprising moment came during a portion of the debate that was focused on how the state can encourage more housing development. Newsom said the current tax structure disincentivizes housing production in favor of retail.
"Is Prop. 13 on the table?" moderator Scott Shafer asked, referring to the 1978 ballot measure that limits property taxes to the value of a home when a buyer moves in.
"Everything is on the table," Newsom responded.
If it didn't reveal new divisions between Newsom and Cox, the debate did illustrate the clear differences — both in policy and personality — among the two candidates.
The first 10 minutes of the hour focused on housing production in California — both candidates have pledged to dramatically increase the amount of development in California as a way to bring down prices.
Asked whether part of the problem is too much local control — that is, cities and counties often kill or scale down development — Cox talked about the building he has done in other states for "one-fourth or fifth of the cost." He blamed "special interests."
"The reason is red tape, taxes and lawsuits," he said. "Government has driven up the costs of housing."
Cox called for "leadership" from Sacramento. But, he said, local governments don't have too much power. Instead, he called for reform to the state's landmark environmental law, but didn't say what he would replace it with.
Newsom framed the problem as one of "intentionality or lack thereof," saying state government must be more involved in setting housing goals. He agreed that local opposition to development is a problem.
"There is a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene — how to incentivize good behavior or disincentivize bad behavior," Newsom said, noting that the Bay Area's regional transit authority is exploring taking transit dollars away from cities and counties that aren't meeting housing production goals.
Listen to the full exchange on housing:
The candidates also clashed over criminal justice reforms — including three bills recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown: One to eliminate cash bail and two others that will allow the public more access to police records.
Cox said he wouldn't have signed any of the bills, and pivoted to attack Newsom's record as mayor of San Francisco, citing crime and homelessness in the city. But when pressed, Cox had this to say:
"I certainly favor transparency, but I think we have to work more with our law enforcement and give them the tools and the ability to deal with particular situations," he said. "I think there has to be a lot more communication. I think we have to foster that. But going after the police and opening up private personnel records I think... just kind of creates a fishing expedition for trial lawyers."
Newsom said he supports all of the criminal justice measures Brown has overseen.
"I don't know how you can be pro-transparency and oppose that bill," Newsom said, referring to Senate Bill 1421, which will force police departments to make public records when police officers are found to have engaged in misconduct. "Twenty seven states provide 'some access' to those records. What we did is reconcile that."
Listen to the full exchange on criminal justice:
Values, Cox Claims 'Evolution' on LGBTQ Issues
Shafer also pressed the candidates on their temperament and values. He asked Cox — who ran for office several times in Illinois before moving to California — about comments he made to a religious group when running for president a decade ago.
At the time, Cox called for a constitutional amendment to prevent same-sex marriage. He also said at the time that "we have a problem with transvestite teachers," and that if we don't use common sense it will "open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality and all kinds of other things."
Cox insisted that he's "evolved" on those issues, and said those comments were made "many years ago." He noted that "Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both opposed gay marriage very strongly for a long time."
Newsom was asked about his ability to work with others, as Shafer noted spats he's engaged in with lawmakers and other public officials. Newsom bristled a bit at the question, but said he has grown over two decades in public life.
"You know, when I look back over the course of 20 plus years, I was mayor at a relatively young age. There was a desire to do everything all at once," he said. "And I think issues of prioritizing, of bringing people into your vision, of making people feel part of the team — those are all lessons. Those are all attributes I hope to bring to the government."
Listen to the full exchange on values: