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Not sold on Gavin Newsom? Well, John Cox wants to run California like Nebraska

Not sold on Gavin Newsom? Well, John Cox wants to run California like Nebraska
In May, Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox addresses supporters at the Sacramento County Republican Party headquarters. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

When Republican John Cox met with the Los Angeles Times editorial board in April to make a pitch for our endorsement in the gubernatorial primary race, he was curiously cagey when thrown softball questions about policymakers and political figures he admired or who helped shape his political philosophy. He said he wasn’t ready to name any names.

After a bit of back and forth, Cox did finally offer up one tidbit when asked if there was a governor he’d like to emulate. “Yes,” he answered quickly. He’d gotten to know Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and thought he had some excellent ideas and smart approaches to issues.

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At the time, I didn’t think much of the comment. For one thing, there was so much else to talk about in his hourlong visit. For another, Cox was one of more than two dozen people running to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown. As is typical of someone who never held elective office, his platform was light on details and heavy on complaints about the current administration. If he should make it to the general election in November, I thought, surely the Chicago businessman seeking the job of running state with the fifth-largest economy in the world would start filling in some of the blanks.

Well, Cox did make it to the general election, and yet by the beginning of October there were still a lot of blanks. Cox has continued to speak in generalities about special interests and the status quo, giving up few concrete plans. In the one and only gubernatorial debate since the June primary on Oct. 8, Cox again failed to cite policies he would employ to make California affordable, deal with rampant homelessness or reduce taxes while maintaining services.

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Cox has no record to examine for clues since he’s never been elected to public office, though he has run a number of losing political campaigns for Congress in Illinois and one short-lived presidential bid. And though polls suggest that it won’t matter because Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will beat Cox on Nov. 6 by a wide margin, I have a lot less faith in the predictive ability of polls than I did before 2016.

In this context, suddenly Cox’s esteem of Nebraska’s Republican governor seemed more significant. Maybe looking at Ricketts’ career might offer some hints as to how Cox might govern.

I knew his name, but I can’t say I knew much more about Ricketts before delving into newspaper archives of the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star (for stories like this profile of Ricketts) and talking to political observers in the last few weeks.

Now, I can see why Cox might identify with Ricketts, who is currently running for a second term. Both are catholic and were born and raised in the Midwest. Both are wealthy businessmen who turned to politics after making their fortunes, eschewing small-time offices for high-profile jobs. Cox, to his credit, made his own money. Ricketts was born into his wealth, the son of Joe Ricketts, founder of the company that is now known as TD Ameritrade. Both Cox and Ricketts are fans of making government more efficient and streamlined.

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But Ricketts is no moderate Republican, as Cox is portraying himself (Cox likes to say he’s a “Jack Kemp Republican”). Ricketts is an immigration hard-liner and supports voter ID requirements. He’s ardently anti-abortion. (Cox too has said he’s “proudly pro-life,” though he hasn’t made a big issue out of it during the campaign.) One of the first things Ricketts did after taking office was to propose a “Choose Life” specialty license plate, which passed only after a long political fight. This year, he proposed a budget provision denying federal Title X funding to family planning clinics that offer abortion services unless they have separate facilities and staff for those procedures.

He strongly supports capital punishment. When the Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015, Ricketts vetoed it. The state Legislature overrode Ricketts’ veto, and the governor responded by using his considerable wealth to fund a ballot measure the following year to reinstate it.

And when it comes to working with the state Legislature to accomplish major policy? It’s either his way or the highway.

“If you’re looking for a governor who is partisan and makes no effort to build consensus across party lines or within his own party, Pete Ricketts is your guy,” Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, told me. And legislators who cross Ricketts may find themselves fighting for their jobs. In the last election, Ricketts went after some of the moderate Republicans who clashed with him, funneling thousands of dollars from his own pocket into the campaigns of opponents.

Another Nebraska political observer I talked to likened Ricketts and his Lt. Gov. Mike Foley (in Nebraska the two run on a slate. Hmm, that’s an idea) to President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. One is a rich guy who does what he wants while the second in command attacks reproductive rights and immigrants.

I’m not saying that Cox would be a Ricketts’s clone. In fact, it’s unlikely, given the deep political differences between liberal California and conservative Nebraska. But Ricketts is the governor that Cox says he most wants to be like, and Californians should consider whether they want that too.

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