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Gubernatorial candidates appeal to Latino voters, spar with each other

A TV screen shows the gubernatorial debate at UCLA on Jan. 25, 2018 televised by Univision. Mary Plummer/KPCC

Six major candidates for governor staked out their positions on issues important to Latino voters during an election forum Thursday night that at times turned into a fierce spitting match between the leaders in the race.

The event hosted by Univision and the Latino Community Foundation presented an early opportunity for candidates to appeal to a community of voters who may prove pivotal in the campaign to choose a successor to Gov. Jerry Brown.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 6.9 million Hispanic residents in California were eligible to vote in the 2016 election, roughly 28 percent of the state's total. But turnout among Latinos has been historically low and midterms tend to dampen participation even more.

This year's gubernatorial election, however, has the potential to prove the exception. Among the leading candidates is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was the city's first Latino mayor since 1872. He would make a similar mark in the history books if elected governor.

Villaraigosa is polling second to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who has  high name recognition in Northern California but needs broader support to pull decisively ahead of his rivals. 

Under California's primary system, the top two vote-getters move on to the general election in November regardless of party. That could be two Democrats, since the Republicans in the race are polling in the single digits.

Still, Republican State Assemblyman Travis Allen drew the spotlight at various points in the event. During one exchange, moderator Jorge Ramos brought two young attendees on stage and pressed Allen on his immigration views.

With the Democratic-leaning crowd chanting, "Yes or no," Ramos asked: "It's very simple, will you deport them or not?"

Allen, one of two Republicans on stage, responded by mentioning the two young immigrants by name.

"Erick and Marcela, what I would tell you is your president of the United States, the duly elected president, is working on a deal right now…," Allen said, a reference to ongoing negotiations to find a solution for young immigrants brought here illegally as children.

Allen went on to say deporting immigrants was not the job of the governor of the state.

Candidates Delaine Eastin, former state superintendent of public instruction, and State Treasurer John Chiang were somewhat sidelined by moderators and other candidates jumping in to speak.

Eastin and Chiang — who played a larger role in the USC debate about two weeks ago — both complained about the time they were allowed to respond during the half-hour live stream following the televised debate. 

"May I say something, please?" Eastin said. Later, the audience began shouting at the moderators, insisting they give Eastin more time to talk. At one point, Villaraigosa held off on tackling a question and suggested it be directed to Eastin instead. 

Here's how candidates responded to questions from Univision anchors Ramos and Ilia Calderón on key topics before an audience of over 1,000 in UCLA's Royce Hall:


The candidates fielded several questions related to immigration reform. Allen — who expressed his support for a border wall that President Trump has championed — was repeatedly attacked by the Democrats. Some of the most pointed comments came from Newsom. 

“I will commit strongly to protect our diverse communities,” Newsom said, taking aim at Trump's immigration policies.

Villaraigosa praised Mexico as friendly neighbors for the U.S. as well as strong trade partners.

"We ought to have a bridge with them,” he said, as opposed to a wall dividing the two countries.

Eastin expressed her support for helping young immigrants. She also advocated for better education opportunities for students who speak English as a second language.

“We need to focus like a razor on the kids who come in and don’t speak English,” she said.

Chiang went after the president himself. “In regards to Mr. Trump, I think we ought to deport him," he said, to loud cheers and applause from the audience. 

Republican businessman John Cox said he supports legal immigration and seasonal work permits.

“We cannot have people who are here illegally committing crime and being defended by taxpayer laws,” Cox said, adding he agrees with Trump that Dreamers need to be protected from deportation.


Asked about single-payer health care, Villaraigosa and Newsom engaged in a heated back-and-forth. Each touted health care plans they had worked on previously. Villaraigosa said he helped far more people and many more Latinos than those in Healthy San Francisco, a program that Newsom rolled out while mayor there.

“We delivered on the promise of universal health care," Newsom said. “I want to bring that principle of leadership to the state.”

When pressed on whether he backed single-payer health care, Villaraigosa repeated his support for the concept, but did not provide specifics on how to accomplish it.

“I’m philosophically for it, but I’m not for S.B. 562,” he said, referring to a measure to create a state-run universal health care system.

Former Congressman Doug Ose, who recently began running for governor, is the third major Republican competing for the seat. He released a statement prior to the event saying he was denied a place on the stage.

A video of the full debate is available online

This story has been updated.