Inside a San Francisco radio studio, away from the glare of television cameras and during a workday, the two candidates for California governor faced off in their only one-on-one debate before election day.
Advertised as a “wide-ranging conversation” instead of a formal political debate, the one-on-one meeting between Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican businessman John Cox was noteworthy for lacking the prime-time television audience that traditionally sees candidates competing for the most powerful and coveted political post in the nation’s most populous state.
During the candidate forum, hosted by San Francisco public radio station KQED and airing statewide, Newsom and Cox clashed over their personal beliefs and political histories in what was largely a measured exchange.
Cox , the clear underdog in the race, was quick to go on the offensive against front-runner Newsom. The Rancho Santa Fe Republican said the most dire crises facing California — poverty, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing — all developed on the watch of Democrats, who control the governor's office and Legislature. He also went after Newsom’s tenure as mayor of San Francisco, saying the city’s problems with homelessness and illicit drug use have only worsened after he left office.
“Gavin has been part of a political class that has led this state downward,” Cox said early in the one-hour radio forum. “I have a vision of this state being affordable and livable. I think we can do that if we get rid of the special-interest influence in Sacramento.”
Newsom blasted Cox for being out of step with most Californians on gun control, abortion rights and climate change, saying the Republican offered only “illusory” ideas but no concrete solutions on how to address crucial state issues such as the need for affordable housing.
He also criticized his opponent for comments the Republican made in 2007 when he said the push for LGBTQ rights would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”
When asked about those issues by moderator Scott Shafer, KQED's senior politics editor, Cox said he has “evolved” on the issue, and accused Newsom of dredging it up to deflect from addressing other state policy matters.
The two candidates sparred over California’s so-called sanctuary state law, landmark 2017 legislation enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown to prevent law enforcement officers in many cases from holding and questioning people at the request of federal immigration agents, and to limit them from sharing the release dates of some county jail inmates who are in the country illegally.
Cox said that he’s heard from law enforcement officers that the legislation is making it harder for them to do their jobs.
“I would get rid of the sanctuary law,” Cox said. “I think we need to get the Legislature to do that and if they don’t do it, I think we need to get it to a vote of the people.”
For his part, Newsom said the sanctuary policy is about “community policing, it’s about building trust.” He also called President Trump’s proposed border wall a “monument to stupidity.”
With solid advantages in the polls and fundraising in left-leaning California, Newsom entered the final stretch of the campaign trying to evoke an air of inevitability. Just last month, Newsom crisscrossed the state in a campaign bus tour that focused on helping down-ballot Democrats challenging Republicans in contested congressional elections, rather than his own campaign for governor.
Still, Cox says his message is catching on. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that, since July, Cox has cut Newsom's lead in the governor's race by half — he now trails the Democrat by 12 percentage points.
But that same poll found that two-thirds of the likely voters in California disapproved of the job Trump has done as president. Trump endorsed Cox before the June primary, giving his campaign a major boost.
Newsom didn’t hesitate to remind listeners about the president’s support for his opponent.
“We certainly represent the vast majority of Californians that reject John Cox’s absolute allegiance to Trump and Trumpism,” Newsom said.
Cox in the past has accused Newsom, California's two-term lieutenant governor, of being more focused on criticizing Trump than tending to the needs of working Californians.
Both men said they support building more housing — Newsom wants to see 3.5 million homes constructed through 2025, while Cox wants developers to build 3 million new homes over the next decade.
Cox also supports changing the California Environmental Quality Act, the landmark law that requires developers to disclose and minimize a project’s impact on the environment. Newsom agreed that reforms are needed, but also accused Cox of offering only superficial solutions, adding that he has 15 separate policy proposals to address the issue.
Newsom was asked if he’d consider reforms to Proposition 13, the 1978 law capping property tax increases that critics view as a contributor to California’s fiscal challenges.
“Everything is on the table as it relates to this issue,” Newsom said of housing. “This is the issue that defines the affordability crisis.”
On gun violence, Cox said that he wants the media to stop publishing the names and photos of those who commit mass shootings. He also said that when it comes to gun control, “more laws are not going to do the job.”
“I certainly favor keeping guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous, people who are mentally ill. But the 2nd Amendment is an important amendment,” Cox said.
Newsom said his opponent has “starkly” different views on guns and that “in every one of these cases, I think he’s wrong.”
The Democrat also touted Proposition 63, a ballot measure he campaigned for in 2016 that requires background checks on the purchase of ammunition, as an example of how California is leading on the issue of gun safety.
During the debate, Shafer asked Newsom how he might work with others in the Capitol if elected, noting that the lieutenant governor has tangled with politicians including former state Senate leader Kevin de León, who that same year pushed legislation for similar gun controls.
“If you’re looking for timidity, I’m not your person,” Newsom said. “If you’re looking for someone to be bold and courageous, lean into issues, change the order of things, I’m committing myself to that cause as the next governor.”
The two candidates also clashed over Proposition 6, the initiative to repeal fuel tax increases and vehicle fees for repairing the state’s roads and bridges.
Cox, who is co-chairman of the Proposition 6 campaign, said that if elected Newsom would not force Caltrans to improve operations to allow the state to pay for road repairs without raising taxes.
“I think Gavin would not exercise enough control over efficiency at Caltrans,” Cox said, adding that Democrats are “digging into the pockets of people who are already paying” high fuel taxes “instead of reforming that system.”
“The tough job would have been making Caltrans live within its means,” Cox said.
Newsom noted that traffic congestion and road conditions are terrible, especially in areas such as Los Angeles.
“His plan is to make things worse,” Newsom said of Cox. “He is taking away over $5 billion every year for road improvement, for public safety improvements.”
With four weeks left before the election, Newsom has almost 10 times as much money as his opponent — $16.2 million cash on hand, compared with $1.7 million Cox has in the bank, according to campaign finance records that detailed activity through Sept. 22.
Newsom and Cox debated five times during the primary season, appearing in events alongside three other top Democrats and another Republican in the race. But the Monday morning debate was their only head-to-head matchup.
Newsom initially agreed to a televised debate hosted by CNN. But the event didn’t get off the ground after Cox demanded that it focus on housing, cost of living, water and other California-specific issues, which Newsom's campaign said was an effort to limit the scope of questions asked.
After criticism from news outlets and others about the lack of debates, the two finally agreed to participate in a "gubernatorial conversation" hosted by KQED during the station’s regularly scheduled “KQED Forum” program that airs from 9 to 11 a.m. weekdays. The event was made available to radio stations throughout California.
At the end of the one-hour candidate forum, Shafer noted that there wasn’t enough time to ask the candidates about many other pressing issues in the state, including water, pension reform and education.
Cox said he would be happy to take part in another debate.
“I’ve agreed to five of these and I can’t get my young friend to do that,” he said.
Times staff writers Liam Dillon, Melanie Mason and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.