Politics

In final California governor debate, Newsom a target

(Left to right, top to bottom) 2018 gubernatorial candidates Travis Allen, John Chiang, John Cox, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa.
(Left to right, top to bottom) 2018 gubernatorial candidates Travis Allen, John Chiang, John Cox, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa.

The candidates for California governor sparred — at moments intensely personally — over issues from immigration and taxes to infidelity, but the last major debate did little to fundamentally shake up the race.

Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor, entered Tuesday's debate firmly in first place and absorbed blows from his rivals from both parties seeking the second of two slots on the general election ballot. He ignored the Democrats but engaged in several tense exchanges with the Republicans.

In the tensest of them all, Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen referenced an affair Newsom had with a San Francisco staffer who was married to his friend and adviser.

"If you can't trust Gavin with his best friend's wife how can you trust him with your state?" Allen said.

Newsom shot back: "It's hard, with respect, to hear from Mr. Allen — who's a devout supporter of Donald Trump — talk about the issue of sexual harassment."

He went on to say that his actions had been wrong, but he learned and grew from the experience.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also faced a high-profile adultery scandal while in office, said he's tried to "make amends to my city.

"I made a mistake. I lost my marriage. I lost my family for a time," Villaraigosa said. "I took responsibility for it. My whole life I've taken responsibility for my actions."

Allen, meanwhile, dismissed a sexual harassment complaint filed against him as a minor issue ginned up by Democrats.

All the candidates are on the same ballot in the June 5 primary and the top two, regardless of party, advance to the general election in November.

The debate, held in San Jose, was the only one televised statewide. With millions of mail ballots already on their way to voters, the six leading candidates worked to distinguish themselves from the crowd and land a memorable performance. It was perhaps the last best chance for candidates trailing Newsom to break out or change the dynamics of a race that has played out largely under the radar as California's elected leaders focused on fighting Trump's agenda.

An April poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Newsom supported by 26 percent of likely voters. John Cox, a Republican businessman from San Diego, was second at 15 percent, followed by Villaraigosa at 13 percent and Allen at 10 percent.

Democrats John Chiang and Delaine Eastin were in the single digits while 22 percent of voters said they were undecided in the survey of the 867 likely voters. The poll had a margin of sampling error rate of 4.4 percent.

Some of the sharpest exchanges Tuesday were between the two Republicans, who are fighting over a smaller share of voters in a state where Democrats dominate.

They sparred over the gas tax, each presenting himself as the strongest opponent of a 12-cent-per-gallon increase approved last year by the Legislature.

Allen repeatedly threw out red meat to conservatives, noting that he was the only candidate who voted for President Donald Trump, urging a purge of "Bay Area liberal elites" working in state government and calling for getting rid of "leftist propaganda" in schools.

Democrats pledged to stand up to Republican President Donald Trump and provide help to the homeless while Republicans said they'd cut taxes and regulations and fight "sanctuary" policies on immigration.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law last year restricting when law enforcement agencies can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

"This is federal law," Cox said. "This is like George Wallace standing in front of a school house in Alabama and saying he's not going to respect federal law."

Democrats said the state must stand up for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who are often called "Dreamers" based on never-passed proposals in Congress known as the DREAM Act.

"I think we need to acknowledge that the Dreamers didn't come here on their own," Villaraigosa said. "They came here because their parents brought them here, and we've got to say that they have a right to have a legalized status."

Chiang, the state treasurer who has struggled in the polls, sharpened his attacks on Newsom and Villaraigosa, slamming his fellow Democrats over immigration and housing. Both former mayors have called for building 3.5 million new homes, which Chiang says is unrealistic.

Eastin, the former state schools chief, called for repealing state restrictions on rent control policies.

Newsom has declined the remaining debate invitations ahead of the primary. He was the only candidate who didn't take questions from reporters following the debate.