With California’s race for governor narrowed down to two big-city rich guys, the mayor of the tiny farm town of Fowler worries that the San Joaquin Valley might continue to be a political afterthought.
David Cardenas wants to see Democrat Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox in the Valley a lot more often so the candidates can see firsthand the fallow fields, dry wells and farmworkers packing up and moving to other states.
But even that might not be enough, he said.
“It’s hard to know what life is like here … if you haven’t lived here,” said Cardenas, who owns a small auto shop in town. “I think that we will be better represented if we have someone who understands, has lived as a person from a very different background.”
No matter who wins in November, the next governor won’t resemble most Californians. In a state where Latinos outnumber whites, women outnumber men and the median family income is just under $64,000 a year, both gubernatorial candidates are white men who earn more than a $1 million a year.
José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco Jr., who served briefly as governor in 1875, remains the only non-white male to hold the office. The last governor from rural California was Earl Warren, who was elected during World War II. Warren grew up in Bakersfield in the early 1900s and later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. No woman has ever been elected governor.
“I think there are many folks who are very disappointed that we’re again going into the general election under these circumstances,” said political scientist Mindy Romero, director of USC’s California Civic Engagement Project. “Breaking that barrier can inspire and signal to others that times have changed.”
California has made strides elsewhere. Women have represented the state in the U.S. Senate since 1993, including Sen. Kamala Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent. Four of California’s statewide officers are Latino or Asian American, the Assembly speaker is Latino and earlier this year Toni Atkins became the first lesbian leader of the state Senate.
“But there is still something about the governor’s race … being the top elected official in our state,” Romero said. “Californians don’t know a whole lot about politicians, but they do know who the governor is.”
While Newsom and Cox have vastly different political views, they share some similarities. Both spent most of their lives in big cities — Newsom in San Francisco and Cox in Chicago. Both own Teslas and live in exclusive, expensive parts of California.
Newsom and his family own a home in Marin County that is more than 4,000 square feet and worth $4.2 million, according to the real estate website Zillow. Cox and his family live in a 6,700-square-foot home worth $3.3 million in a Rancho Santa Fe gated community.
From those perches, Newsom and Cox have vowed to end the critical shortage of affordable housing in California and address the explosion of homelessness in the state, where an estimated 134,000 people are on the streets or have no permanent place to live.
Both candidates say voters should consider their life experiences, including difficult upbringings, and the ideals and accomplishments that have defined their adult lives. Their wealth is a reflection of success in business, an accomplishment that requires intellect, responsibility and a grasp of the inner workings of job creation and the economy — essential traits for California’s next governor, they said.
Newsom dismissed a recent story in The Times detailing how some of San Francisco’s wealthiest families, including heirs to the Getty oil fortune, helped accelerate his rise in politics and business in San Francisco. To really understand him and the primary influences in his life, Newsom said voters should know that he spent half his childhood with his father in Placer County, one of the most conservative pockets of rural California, and was raised by a mother who scratched out a living to provide for her children.
“I grew up with a single mom who knew no wealth and struggled all her life, and that’s a very raw and real experience for me,” Newsom said during a recent campaign bus tour through California.
The lieutenant governor said that as mayor and supervisor in San Francisco, he championed racial, social and economic justice, including his efforts to alleviate poverty and homelessness in the city. He gained national attention as mayor of San Francisco in 2004 when he directed the city to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a catalyst in a legal battle that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of LGBTQ people to marry in 2015.
“So as it relates to advocacy, gender equity, gender equality, racial justice – that’s my ‘Why,’ ” Newsom said. “So I think I bring that all to bear despite the Northern California pedigree, the proverbial straight white male … I’ve always tried to see the world through a different set of eyes.”
On the campaign trail, Cox also talks about his difficult childhood in Chicago, and being raised by a single mother when he was young after his father left. Cox said he worked his way through college, earning a degree to be a certified public accountant, then did the same when he went to law school.
“If you’re going to compare Mr. Newsom and I, compare the fact that I started at the bottom, worked my way and build my business with efficiency and quality,” Cox said at a campaign event in San Luis Obispo in August. “He started by being funded by a billionaire, Gordon Getty. That’s who put him in business. That’s who put him in politics. I’ve had to work and produce and deliver results.”
Cox has also lashed out at Newsom and California’s Democratic political leadership, saying the most dire crises facing California — poverty, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing — all happened while Democrats controlled the governor’s office and Legislature. The increase in gas taxes signed into law in 2017 are just one example of a Democratic policy that hurts working Californians, he said.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are if you can’t afford gasoline,” Cox said. “People who are brown or black are still being beaten down in this state by the cost of gasoline, by the cost of housing, by schools that don’t teach, by fires that threaten their lives.”
Harmeet Dhillon, one of California's representatives on the Republican National Committee, said voters should be more concerned about a candidate’s ability to improve their lives than their gender or the color of a politician’s skin. Still, she noted that Neel Kashkari, the Republican nominee in the 2014 governor’s race, was Indian American, and the GOP nominee in 2010 was a woman, former EBay President and Chief Executive Meg Whitman. Their Democratic challenger was Jerry Brown, who won both elections.
“In my party, we’re post-racial,” Dhillon said. “The Democrats are more hung up on it.”
Los Angeles state Sen. Kevin de León, who is challenging fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s bid for reelection in the U.S. Senate, said candidates who reflect the lives and experiences of the Californians they represent lead to better public policy. He questioned how Feinstein, the second wealthiest member of California’s congressional delegation, could know the struggles of those she represents.
“I don’t criticize her for being wealthy,” said De León, who was raised by a single mother in San Diego. “But I think I have a better understanding of why so many families want an increase in the minimum wage, quality healthcare and have criminal justice issues.”
Among the biggest blind spots for politicians in Sacramento are the issues facing rural California, since the vast majority of lawmakers represent urban areas, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) said.
“It’s a fight to get them to recognize that one size doesn’t fit all,” said Caballero, who is running for state Senate.
One glaring example, she said, was the landmark legislation recently signed by the governor that will require all of California's electricity to come from clean power sources by 2045. The legislation limits the credit given to hydroelectric power as a renewable energy source, and that is expected to increase utility bills in the Central Valley — one of the hottest regions in California.
“It totally left out rural California,” Caballero said. “We need a governor who’s going to listen.”