A raucous, catcalling audience and volley of sharp political attacks enlivened the first major debate in California's 2018 governor's race Saturday, with front-runner Gavin Newsom taking the brunt of the blows from the candidates on stage.
Most of Newsom's rivals tried at the event to chip away his dominant lead in the polls and money race as the contest, which has been sleepy for the last year, grows more visible and confrontational. The face-off took place at the Empowerment Congress Summit, an annual gathering held at USC.
Newsom, the lieutenant governor and former mayor of San Francisco, kept a steely smile throughout most of the morning debate. He largely stayed out of the fray and on message, even after he was accused of being inconsistent and unrealistic on single-payer healthcare, and too cozy with teachers unions.
The sharpest exchange came from rival Democrat and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ridiculed Newsom for supporting a state-sponsored universal healthcare system last year without identifying a way to pay for it. The proposal was shelved in the Legislature because of a cost estimated to be as high as $400 billion.
"Anyone who's telling you that we should do it without a plan is selling you snake oil," Villaraigosa said.
State Treasurer John Chiang, who like Villaraigosa said he supports the concept of single-payer healthcare but said it was financially out of reach, accused Newsom of changing his position on the issue depending on the audience he was in front of.
Newsom responded by saying that bold change is needed because the current, ineffective healthcare system is driving California into bankruptcy, and that the state needs a governor who is not afraid to act. It was one of the only times Newsom shot back at Villaraigosa.
"Antonio just mentioned that he's on Medicare. Isn't that interesting. A single-payer plan in this country … that brings down costs," said Newsom, who dominates the fundraising race with more than $15 million raised to date, in part because he entered the contest three years ago — far before any of the other candidates.
The debate also grew increasingly chippy between the two Republicans on stage, Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox, with the biggest clash over which one of the two has played a bigger role in GOP-led efforts to repeal a newly approved gas tax.
The barbed exchanges between the candidates was often interrupted by applause, loud groans and cascades of boos from the at-capacity crowd inside USC's Bovard Auditorium. The event was hosted by the Empowerment Congress, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Los Angeles.
With six candidates on stage and only 90 minutes to carve out their political positions, the debate served as a display of each candidate's style, demeanor and political reflexes rather than a showing of their depth of knowledge on the issues facing California.
The moderators, KABC-TV news anchor Marc Brown and KPCC-FM public radio senior political reporter Mary Plummer, tried without success to quiet down the energized audience. They also admonished the candidates for interrupting one another and going over their time.
The only candidate to avoid conflict was Democrat Delaine Eastin, a former state schools chief, who received a warm response when she expressed strong support for universal preschool in California.
Eastin drew loud applause when expressing her support for immigrants.
"My father was born in Kentucky. Nobody loved California more than he did," Eastin said. "He used to say, 'Californians are people who are from somewhere else and came to their senses.' "
Education was another flashpoint, with several candidates quickly turning to attack Newsom for his record on the issue.
After Cox blasted Newsom's endorsement by the California Teachers Assn. as an example of special-interest money controlling politicians, Newsom responded that he was proud of the endorsement.
"I'm committed to public education. I'm committed to increasing funding in our public school system," Newsom said, pointing to his track record on education while he was mayor of San Francisco.
"San Francisco was the top-performing urban school district in the state of California. We were hardly perfect; we had stubborn achievement gap issues," he said, adding that the city invested in arts education, placed wellness centers in schools and created college savings accounts for every kindergarten student.
Villaraigosa and Chiang both objected, pointing to uneven performance among different groups of students.
"I don't think we can gloss over the fact that San Francisco County is the worst county for African American students in this state," Villaraigosa said. "You can't just say we have a little bit of an achievement gap. We actually have a real achievement gap, and if this state is going to be a golden state and it's going to do what we should do to grow together, we've got to invest in every one of us."
Chiang added that Latino and Pacific Islander students also faced a greater performance disparity in San Francisco than in other areas.
"We're talking about a very select group that may have high achievement that accounts for San Francisco, but when you're talking about the future of the state of California, they're being left behind," he said.
As expected, Democrats and Republicans divided along party lines on many of the other issues they were quizzed about, splitting over the new gas tax, climate change and President Trump's immigration policies.
The Democrats ripped into Trump for asking participants in an Oval Office meeting Thursday why the United States should accept immigrants from "shithole countries" in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.
Cox sidestepped Trump's slur, dismissing the controversy as distraction from the real issues facing California. Allen used it as an opportunity to voice his support for Trump's immigration crackdown, including the president's push to build a massive border wall. He was roundly booed by the audience.
Cox, who also said he supports the border wall, caught an earful when he tried to explain why he thinks legal immigrants are crucial to California's financial well-being.
"We also need a wealth of people who can contribute to the American dream, who can pick the fruits and vegetables that make California No. 1" in agriculture, Cox said to loud groans from the crowd.
He used his next opportunity to say he recognized immigrants contributed to all aspects of society.
The biggest clash between the two Republicans was a snippy back-and-forth over the effort to repeal the gas tax.
Allen started gathering signatures in May to place a measure on the ballot, but Cox didn't get involved in a competing effort until October. Allen's effort failed Friday to qualify for the ballot, and he joined the effort that Cox is part of.
After Allen urged the audience to sign a petition to put the matter before voters, Cox replied: "Travis, welcome to the fight on getting rid of the gas tax. Glad to have you on board — finally."
Allen pointed out that his call to repeal the gas tax predates Cox's.
"It's funny, John, that was my fight from the beginning, so you're welcome," Allen said, later adding, "I'd like to say thank you very much to John Cox for writing a $250,000 check to buy his way into the repeal-the-gas-tax [ballot measure committee]."
Newsom has led all recent polls and has a vast advantage in campaign money raised, both of which make him the favorite to finish first in the June 5 primary.
The race is likely to boil down to a battle for second place — and in California, that's good enough. Under the state's top-two primary rules, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary win a ticket to the November general election, regardless of their party affiliation.
According to a November USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, Newsom led the pack with 31% of California's registered voters, followed by Villaraigosa with 21%.
Among the other Democrats, Chiang came in with 11% and Eastin registered at 4%. Allen led among the major Republicans with 15% and Cox was favored by 11%.
Former GOP congressman Doug Ose, who entered the race just over a week ago and did not receive an invitation to the town hall, was not included in the poll.