Gubernatorial candidates Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) sparred over homelessness, abortion access, soaring gas prices and addressing climate change at the first and likely only debate between the two candidates this election.
On stage Sunday at KQED headquarters in San Francisco, Newsom and Dahle answered questions from KQED's Senior Editor for Politics and Government Scott Shafer and Politics Correspondent Marisa Lagos. While Newsom and Dahle at times dug deep into policy disagreements, they also often retreated to more widely held positions by both political parties.
"He does not support reproductive freedom, does not support reproductive choice, regardless of rape, regardless of incest," Newsom said of his opponent, Dahle, taking aim at a topic top of mind for Californians at the opening of the debate. "I work[ed] with legislative leaders to get Proposition 1 on the ballot. It's foundational to the core values to the state of California and is something that I enthusiastically support."
Dahle retorted with a jab at rumors Newsom is mulling a run for president.
"I want to start out by thanking the governor for taking time out of his going forward on his dream of being president of the United States and actually coming to California and having a debate," Dahle said. "I don't know if he's been out on the street or if you've been on the street talking to people who can't afford to live in California. People are fleeing California because they can't afford to live here. He's driving up the cost of everything in California."
The pair traded barbs on California's cost of living and Newsom's record in helping Californians conserve water. Dahle also said Newsom could do more to ease high gas prices for people statewide. Newsom attacked Dahle's opposition to funding to expand preschool and his stance against abortion access.
"Three hundred companies have left California under his watch — in the last three years. These are worldwide companies. Tesla, Oracle, HP, have left California under his watch," Dahle said.
But Newsom responded, "Let me unpack, just on the issue of the economy. California has no peers. The state of California grew at 7.8% GDP last year — outperformed the United States, which was at 5.7%."
Preelection polls — along with voters’ solid rejection of a Newsom recall last year — suggest the outcome is a foregone conclusion. According to a Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey released earlier this month, 53% of voters support Newsom while 32% support Dahle.
Dahle’s biggest problem, however, might be simple name recognition. The same poll showed that about 52% of likely voters were "unfamiliar" with him.
Newsom’s huge advantage in polls and fundraising have allowed him to nearly ignore his opponent, using his campaign cash to air commercials on other ballot topics, supporting Proposition 1 on abortion rights and opposing Proposition 30, which would raise taxes on the wealthy to fund climate goals and fight wildfires.
Newsom also raised eyebrows with strategic ad buys in Texas and Florida — highlighting his political differences with two Republican governors who are thought to be weighing a run for president in 2024.
Newsom tried to put that matter to rest on Sunday. On stage, Lagos asked Newsom, "I want to ask very clearly, you're asking voters for four more years. Do you commit to serving all four?"
Newsom answered, "Yes."
The pair then moved on to California-specific issues.
Proposition 1: Reproductive rights
In its June decision on Dobbs v. Jackson, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, letting states decide whether to allow abortions. Following those weakened protections, California lawmakers approved placing Proposition 1 on the ballot, which would amend the state constitution to leave no doubt that abortion is a legal right in the state.
At the debate, Newsom highlighted Dahle's opposition to the measure.
"We're not embarrassed and we don't apologize for having the back of women and girls all across this country that are fleeing persecution. And fleeing the kind of, well, extreme policies you are promoting," Newsom said, referencing Dahle. "What my opponent believes is some10-year-old that's raped by her father should be forced to bear her brother or sister. His position is extreme. And that is something I hope the people of the state of California consider."
Dahle shot back that Proposition 1 didn't allow a statewide debate on how abortion access should be navigated in California, if at all.
"You know, he talks about extreme. Extreme is not ever having a conversation," Dahle said. "It's just all or nothing. That's what's going to happen under this Prop. 1."
Dahle calls himself “pro-life” and voted against putting Proposition 1 before voters to make abortion a constitutional right in California, which Newsom has championed. Throughout his campaign, however, Dahle has not exactly been vocal about his position on abortion — perhaps an acknowledgment of California’s overwhelming approval of abortion rights. When asked about his position on abortion rights by The San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, Dahle deferred to his voting record instead of answering directly.
Gas prices soared across the nation this summer because of high inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing disruptions in the global supply chain.
But while gas prices have recovered somewhat nationwide, they have continued to spike in California, hitting an average of $6.39 per gallon earlier this month — $2.58 higher than the national average, according to AAA.
On stage at KQED, Shafer asked Dahle, "How do you propose the state bring down the gas price in a meaningful way for consumers?"
Dahle said California needs to grant permits to 1,200 oil wells sitting on the desk of the governor right now.
"He prefers not to get those permits out," Dahle said.
Dahle said a gas tax holiday is "the fastest way you can actually help drive down inflation." His experience with his own trucking business has made the gas pain all too personal, he said, seeing him pay $4,000 monthly for diesel fuel.
"That drives up the cost of a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs for every hardworking Californian," Dahle said. "So if you lower that gas tax across the board, it lowers [the cost of] your food, not only the gas you put in your tank."
California has the second-highest gas tax in the country and other environmental rules that increase the cost of fuel in the nation’s most populous state.
But Shafer pressed Dahle, "How do you guarantee that if the tax goes away, that it's actually going to go to consumers and not just the oil companies?"
"Well, we make sure that they do it," Dahle said.
Watch the debate in the YouTube video above.
Newsom said other states have moved forward with gas tax reductions — some of which include Maryland, New York and Georgia — and "we haven't seen the commensurate reduction" in gas prices because "there is no guarantee." He added that leading economists have said it's "nothing more than a gimmick."
"These companies are ripping you off and ripping us off. That's why I want to move forward with a price-gouging penalty to address this abuse," Newsom said.
The state Legislature briefly considered a proposal earlier this year that would have imposed a “windfall profits tax” on oil companies’ gross receipts when the price of a gallon of gasoline was “abnormally high compared to the price of a barrel of oil.”
That proposal would have required state regulators to determine the tax rate, making sure it recovered any oil company profit margins that exceeded $0.30 per gallon. The money from the tax would then have been returned to taxpayers via rebates. It's unclear how closely Newsom's final proposal will resemble this earlier effort.
Dahle frequently says California spends too much money on homelessness with little to show for it. He has said that, if elected to office, he would declare homelessness a “public health crisis” and “stop the state’s misguided attempt to throw money” at the problem.
On stage, Dahle said he would declare a state of emergency over fentanyl in California. Lagos asked what a state of emergency would do.
"It would focus on the fact that fentanyl is an issue in California. People on the streets are addicted, to get them off of drugs. That's the first thing you do to get them on the projection out is get them off of drugs. You fund the counties with the mental health programs that they need and the clinicians, and then drive down the cost of housing in California are the three things that would need to happen for to take care of homelessness," Dahle said.
Newsom, however, said Dahle's proposal had no meat to it.
"Somehow, a 'state of emergency' [will be enacted], and we're going to magically solve fentanyl. That's what my opponent just said, somehow, [fentanyl] magically will disappear on the basis of a state of emergency," Newsom said.
Newsom has also taken aim at homeless spending in his career. During his time as San Francisco mayor, he said there was nothing “liberal or compassionate" about letting people sleep on the streets, and championed a program called Care Not Cash to end cash subsidies to unhoused people in favor of services.
He's taking that proposal to a statewide scale, saying California will hold local governments accountable. Lagos asked Newsom to respond to Californians who are concerned about the growing number of people living on the state's streets.
“They’re right. This is an outrage,” Newsom said. “We’re not going to hand out money any longer if local governments can’t produce results.”
Last month, Newsom signed his controversial new program, CARE Court, into law. The Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act would compel some people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders to either accept treatment plans or, if they refuse, be placed under conservatorship.
"Of course, my opponent opposed the funding for CARE Court," Newsom said. "When I got here, there was no homeless strategy, no plan, no resources of any merit. Today, there's $15.3 billion and there's a real strategy, real plan, and there's accountability for the first time."
The number of Californians without homes grew by at least 22,500 over the last three years, according to a CalMatters analysis of the federal government’s last point-in-time count. California enacted a number of safeguards against homelessness during the pandemic, from rental assistance to a moratorium on evictions. The rate of homelessness among Californians grew 15% over the last year, on par with steady growth in homelessness from 2015 to today.
In television interviews and on social media, Dahle has echoed Republican criticism of Democrats for being what they call “soft on crime.” Dahle has advocated increasing funding to local law enforcement, according to CalMatters, and weakening Proposition 47, which reduced punishments for some property and drug crimes. Conservatives have long pointed to Proposition 47 as a turning point that lowered consequences and led to rising crime, though research has not backed up that claim.
"This issue remains a vexing issue, but Proposition 47 is not the culprit. It's not the reason why we have seen an increase in crime in the state and or in this country," Newsom said Sunday.
"The narratives don't fit the facts," Newsom said, saying California is "average" for felony rates in the United States.
California is a uniquely large state, however, and different regions experience crime rates differently: The San Joaquin Valley saw large upticks in violent crime, while the highest rate of property crime in California last year was in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Viral videos of smash-and-grab-style burglaries and brazen attacks against Asian and Asian American people have led to fear and outrage in some California cities, including San Francisco. Dahle referenced those disparities in the crimes Californians are seeing rise as a way for Newsom to obscure ugly truths.
"Murders went up 40% in the last two years in California," Dahle said.
"We believe in commonsense criminal justice reform. The reality is, (Dahle) also opposed our crime reduction plan, a $758 million investment," Newsom said, which included 1,000 new California Highway Patrol officers.
"This is an issue that has no political jurisdiction," Newsom said.
Seeking to protect Californians from gun violence, Newsom signed a bevy of bills this legislative session to toughen gun-safety laws. Among them are new laws to conduct inspections of gun dealers, reducing the number of guns a person can manufacture, restricting ghost-gun and prohibiting the sale of firearms on state property.
Throughout the debate, Dahle and Newsom took potshots at the other's policies, frequently relying on party talking points.
"We're in a constant state of crisis under your leadership. Your leadership has not solved one problem. We have fires that you haven't solved. We have water storage you haven't solved. We have electricity you haven't solved. All those things you talk about, but what are the results? Zero," Dahle said, of Newsom.
"With respect, you're not pro-life. You're pro-government-mandated birth. If you were pro-life, you would support our efforts to provide support for child care and preschool and prenatal programs. You've consistently opposed those programs," Newsom said, of Dahle.
But near the end of the debate, Shafer and Lagos asked each candidate to talk about a time in life when they learned they were wrong, and how they remedied that mistake, a question that set them down the road toward common ground.
Newsom spoke about iterating in his life, and about overcoming a significant learning disability and taking speech therapy as a kid. As a result, he said, "I don't like bullies, I don't like cruelty, I don't like people that humiliate other people." And as a younger person, he said, he did "not learn quickly enough that all of us are unique."
Dahle said he learned a lot about environmentalism earlier on in his political career in a way that "helped me expand on my ability to be able to be very sensitive to the environment."
The pair even found agreement on one issue: reparations. Dahle supported the study to explore paying back Black Californians for injustices of the past and present.
"I think it's a step in the right [direction] for those people, to those people who were wronged," Dahle said.
Lagos voiced her surprise, saying, “We found one thing you two agree on."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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