The candidates who hope to be California’s next governor clashed Thursday about immigration, healthcare and how they made their fortunes at a boisterous debate in front of a packed hall with a predominantly Latino audience.
As the clout of Latino voters continues to grow in California, the governor’s race could hinge on which candidate appeals most to this critical slice of the electorate. Many of the debate’s questions revolved around immigration, a touchstone issue to many in the audience. But front-runners Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa also unleashed deeply personal attacks on how the other made his money, a shift from the policy spats that have emerged in prior clashes.
“I don’t owe them an apology,” Villaraigosa said during the evening debate at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
He praised the multi-level marketing company for providing vitamins and nutritional supplements to communities that suffer disproportionally with diabetes and obesity. And he compared Herbalife to Avon and Tupperware, companies he said his mother worked for “to make ends meet.”
Villaraigosa used the moment to criticize Newsom for earning millions in the wine industry while serving in public office, and for selling silver bars.
“He’s become a multimillionaire selling wine. I’ll keep my record to his anytime,” Villaraigosa said.
Newsom responded quickly and with force. He accused Villaraigosa of cashing in after serving his two terms as mayor by working for a company known for “predatory practices against communities of color.”
He defended his success as a businessman, saying his 23 companies employ more than 700 people.
“To compare that to the work you did shilling for Herbalife is insulting,” Newsom said.
The clash occurred midway through the 90-minute debate, the second major face-off among the top six gubernatorial candidates of both parties in less than two weeks. Former California Rep. Doug Ose, a newly announced Republican candidate, was once again left off the debate stage.
The forum was sponsored by the Latino Community Foundation and moderated by Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Ilia Calderón. The first hour aired live on Univision stations and online in California, while the final 30 minutes were live-streamed.
Most of the questions the moderators posed were about immigration policy, such as California’s clash with the Trump administration over its new so-called sanctuary state status.
The candidates divided among familiar partisan battle lines.
The Democrats agreed on support for California’s sanctuary state policy and other efforts to protect immigrants who are in the country illegally. They were also united on policy specifics such as the need to provide “Dreamers” a path to citizenship, and to provide safeguards to people who fled natural disasters or civil unrest and came to this country through the temporary protected status program.
“California was built on the back of immigrants,” Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang said. “Fundamentally we’re about dignity, decency and respect for all people. That is the heart of America, and we want to be that shining [city] to send a signal to President Trump that you’re dead wrong.”
Former state schools chief Delaine Eastin drew loud applause when she referred to Trump as an “orange-haired misogynist racist.”
But Chiang and Eastin have failed to make a mark in the polls, and they did not make much of an impact in the debate, which more frequently focused on testy exchanges between Newsom and Villaraigosa than on the other Democrats onstage.
Republican businessman John Cox repeatedly complained that the debate revolved around Newsom and Villaraigosa, rather than the myriad problems the state faces, including the high poverty rate and the power of special interests.
“What you’re witnessing, ladies and gentlemen, is two leopards arguing over how many spots they have,” Cox said. “They’re both in the business of influence peddling and that’s the problem.”
Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) were repeatedly interrupted and booed when they spoke positively of Trump’s immigration policy.
Allen appeared to relish his role as a bomb-thrower and drew the audience’s greatest ire throughout the night, including when he needled Ramos. Trump had the veteran journalist physically removed from a news conference during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Ramos asked Allen whether he stood with California or with Trump.
“You know Jorge, that’s a funny question coming from you,” Allen replied. “The bottom line is this: Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and I feel it is incumbent upon the next governor of the state of California to have the best possible relationship with the White House.”
Allen criticized Democratic politicians for fighting with Trump, and called on California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra to be arrested and prosecuted for his threat to fine businesses that cooperate with federal immigration authorities in violation of the sanctuary state law.
The audience grew the most heated when Allen was asked whether two people onstage, who were brought into the country illegally when they were young, ought to be deported.
He walked over to them, shook their hands and demurred, saying Trump was working on a policy that would allow them to remain in the U.S. The crowd chanted disapprovingly at Allen, shouting “Yes or no? Yes or no?” and “Make him leave! Make him leave!”
Though a growing segment of the electorate, Latinos have traditionally not voted at the same proportion as other ethnic groups, particularly in non-presidential elections. In the 2014 primary, Latinos accounted for 12% of the votes cast despite making up 23% of registered voters.
But political observers say a couple of factors may increase Latino voter turnout this year. Polling that shows Latinos have been more politically engaged since the election of Trump, and there are two Latino politicians running for governor and the U.S. Senate.
In the gubernatorial contest, Latino voters are critical to Villaraigosa’s chances. Roughly 40% of likely Latino voters in the state back him, double that of any other candidate, according to multiple polls.
He appealed to them by outlining his history of activism dating to his high school days. And he earned raucous applause from the audience in one of the debate’s lighter moments, when the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they had ever smoked marijuana.
Villaraigosa was the first candidate to raise a hand.
“And different than some, I actually inhaled,” he said.