Surrounded by TV news cameras, Republican John Cox chatted with weary Californians stuck in long lines at a Sacramento DMV office and joyfully blasted Democratic leaders for turning the agency into a model of inefficiency.
The appearance was primed to be a much-needed publicity coup for the gubernatorial candidate — until he compared the wait times to the Holocaust.
“You know, I met a Holocaust survivor in Long Beach,” Cox said to a man waiting inside. “He survived concentration camps, and he said this was worse. He’s 90 years old and he had to wait four hours down in Long Beach. Can you imagine that?”
The statement is the latest in a string of gaffes and eyebrow-raising comments the candidate has made over the past year. Cox blamed his blunders on the fact that he’s not a “silver-throated politician,” part of his effort to cast himself as a successful businessman and Capitol outsider.
Cox’s comments have emerged as an issue in his campaign against Democrat Gavin Newsom, who is ahead in most polls in this left-leaning state. They also come at a time when the concept of — and consequence for — a political gaffe is changing. President Trump, who had endorsed Cox, made numerous statements on the campaign trail that pundits thought would end his political career, but had little effect.
While he pitches himself as a relative newcomer to politics, Cox has run for office before, including two unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, and a quixotic bid for president in 2008.
In just the past year, Cox was heckled during a gubernatorial debate in January after saying the nation should welcome legal immigrants “who can pick the fruits and vegetables” on California farmlands. He has also boasted about owning three homes and said homeless people who are addicted to drugs should be “incarcerated in hospitals.”
Newsom has largely avoided similar missteps in the race, but has faced criticism about his own past, including an extramarital affair.
Still, his campaign has already seized upon some statements Cox made more than a decade ago, including comments on abortion and gay rights, to portray him as out of touch with Californians. Cox has said he opposed abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. And in a 2007 presidential debate, he warned that the push for LGBTQ rights might “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality and all kinds of other things.”
Cox still opposes abortion but says, regardless of his personal beliefs, he would abide by the law. He has since renounced his statement on LGBTQ rights saying that, as with many in the country, his views have changed.
“Like many Californians, my views have evolved over the last decade. I concluded that [opposing same-sex marriage] was inconsistent with my support for individual liberty, limited government and the right to privacy,” Cox said in a statement released earlier this year.
The Newsom campaign condemned Cox’s past statements.
“The vile and hateful views that emanate from Cox’s mouth — his comparing being gay to bestiality, his support for criminalizing abortion even in cases of rape, and his denials of climate science — have no place in California politics,” Newsom campaign spokesman Nathan Click said.
But such statements might not generate the political fallout they once did, Sacramento State political scientist Kim Nalder said. President Trump’s almost daily incendiary tweets and comments have become so commonplace that many Americans may be growing numb to political blunders, she said.
“I think we as a country have become a little more immune to political gaffes in the Trump era because it’s just a daily occurrence,” Nalder said. “We hear outrageous things that would have been disqualifying for anyone else in our political history.”
Newsom is no stranger to controversy or blunders. While mayor of San Francisco, Newsom publicly acknowledged having an affair in 2005 with his then-appointments secretary and the wife of a top aide, and also said he was seeking help for a drinking problem.
Shortly after he was elected to that office, Newsom and then-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom were profiled by Harper’s Bazaar as “The New Kennedys.” For the article, they were photographed stretched out across a rug inside the Pacific Heights home of Ann and Gordon Getty, heirs to the Getty oil fortune.
The Democrat was also ridiculed on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” when he was pitching his 2013 book, “Citizenville,” which called for the better use of technology by governor. On the show, Newsom slipped into Silicon Valley speak, and host Stephen Colbert called him out on it.
“Big is getting small, and small is getting big — technology has the ability to level the playing field,” Newsom said.
“What the ... does any of that mean?” Colbert asked, triggering laughter from the audience.
How gaffes affect a campaign depends on whether they confirm the doubts and fears voters have about a candidate or political party, Nadler said. For example, Latinos could be wary of the GOP on issues such as immigration, she added.
During California’s 2010 governor’s race, Democrat Jerry Brown compared Republican challenger Meg Whitman to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, a comment he later said was “taken out of context.”
Cox said the same thing about his comments comparing the DMV to the Holocaust, calling it an innocent mistake that was blown out of proportion by media outlets thirsty for “headlines and clicks.”
He said he flubbed recounting what the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor told him, that the DMV reminded him of the long lines seen in pre-World War II Germany and Latvia.
“His story stuck with me not only because of the gravity of speaking with a Holocaust survivor, but because my mother was Jewish and this subject always compelled the utmost respect and attention in our home,” Cox said in a statement. “While recounting the conversation with the gentleman in the DMV while I was in Sacramento, I attempted to convey his frustration and, in paraphrasing his comments, I misspoke. I certainly apologize to that gentleman, and to anyone that may have been offended. I’m not as polished as some others in the public eye.”
But the damage was done. Capital Public Radio recorded Cox’s comments on tape.
Cox also had some explaining to do after the first major gubernatorial debate in January, hosted at USC, when asked how he would respond to the Trump administration’s immigration policies if elected governor. Cox said the country has border security problems and that he supported Trump’s proposal to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, but added that the nation has benefited greatly from immigrants who come to the country legally.
“We also need to welcome people who can contribute to the American dream, who can pick the fruits and vegetables that have made California number one in agriculture,” Cox said as he appeared to get flustered by sounds of disapproval from the audience. “Wait a minute. They also start the businesses of the future that employ all of our people. You’ve got to let me finish, people. We need to have people who come to this country who contribute.”
Weeks later Cox also heard groans from the audience during his closing statement at a debate hosted by Univision at UCLA. Cox talked about his mother earning a degree in Spanish from Berkeley and teaching in Chile.
“She spoke Spanish like a native. I visited with Latino doctors all my childhood. I love the Latino people,” Cox said. “But I love the law and I love California. I love California, and I want to change this state. We have to transform this state to make it affordable, to make it work for all of us.”
Cox also has been quick to notice when he’s uttered something he knows will cause a stir.
During an interview hosted by Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco, Cox blamed the state’s Democratic leadership for California’s lack of affordable housing and the growing homelessness crisis, two of the main issues of the 2018 campaign. But he ended the interview with a comment that called attention to the vast difference between his wealthy lifestyle and that of Californians desperate for a decent place to live.
“I love this state, I have three homes here,” Cox said, quickly realizing how that sounded. “I can hear my PR guy having a heart attack, but I want people to know I’ve made an investment here. I love it. I’ve been successful. I’ve been lucky. I’m not going to apologize for it.”
Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who was a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said Cox’s gaffes might have been more politically costly if voters considered him to be a credible threat to Newsom in November.
But Cox has nowhere near enough money to wage a full-force television ad campaign, essential in a state as large as California, and recent polls show he lags far behind Newsom, he said.
“Gaffes are troublesome if people are paying attention. If a gaffe happens during a presidential debate when 30 million people are watching, that’s a problem,” Whalen said. “How many people are watching the California governor’s race now? Not many.”
Times staff writer Mini Racker contributed to this report.