Newsom, Dahle paint two vastly different views of California in governor’s debate

In the California governor race’s one-and-only debate, Gov. Gavin Newsom touted his record, the economy and investments he’s made in education and homelessness Sunday, while Republican opponent Sen. Brian Dahle painted him as an out-of-touch elitist concerned only with running for president.

The two sparred on abortion, homelessness, energy and more during the hour-long debate held at KQED’s studio in San Francisco. It was a chance for Dahle, still unknown to many Californians, to get some publicity, and a chance for Newsom — who is expected to coast to re-election in the heavily blue state — to trumpet his achievements over the past four years.

Dahle blasted the governor for failing to fix a myriad of problems in California, from crime to homelessness to wildfires, while Newsom pointed to initiatives — such as the CARE Court mental health program, which orders some people with severe mental illnesses into treatment — he’s helped launch while in office. The conversation grew spirited at times, with both candidates, sitting side by side at the same table, accusing each other of playing fast and loose with the truth. But it ended on a conciliatory note, with Newsom and Dahle finding two things they agree on — support for the state’s reparations task force, and a mutual love of fishing.

“It was very cordial in these polarized times,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.

KQED senior politics editor Scott Shafer and KQED politics correspondent Marisa Lagos moderated the debate.

Gubernatorial candidates, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and Republican challenger state Sen. Brian Dahle are seen on a display during their debate held by KQED Public Television in San Francisco, on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, Pool)

Dahle, a state senator from a family of ranchers in Lassen County, kicked off the day by sarcastically thanking Newsom for taking time out of his busy presidential campaign schedule. From there, he repeatedly mentioned the governor’s rumored White House ambitions. He also continually brought up the plight of middle-class people who are struggling under the burden of high gas prices and inflation.

“Californians are suffering because of your policies,” Dahle said. “I know that your friends and the people you run with can afford to live in California, but the every-day, hardworking, middle-class Californian, governor, is suffering from the policies you put forward. At the same time we have no water, we have no electricity, we have no plan.”

But while Dahle portrayed the state as a crime-ridden mess that people are fleeing in droves because they can’t afford to live here, Newsom painted a rosier picture.

“I’m very proud of our record over the course of the last few years,” he said. “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done to see reforms into the future.”

The two discussed gas prices, with Newsom touting the gas rebate checks that have started going out to Californians earlier this month and accusing Dahle of spouting talking points for “big oil.” He’s calling for a special legislative session in December to discuss issuing a tax on oil companies’ “windfall” profits. In contrast, Dahle emphasized his support for a gas tax holiday. He struggled to give a specific answer when the moderators asked how he’d make sure companies passed those tax breaks on to consumers.

On abortion, Dahle affirmed his pro-life stand and criticized Newsom for spending money on giving out-of-state residents access to the procedure in California. But Dahle said as governor he’d be willing to sign a budget that funded abortion if it was the only way to strike a deal with the legislature.

Newsom defended his pro-choice record.

“We’re not embarrassed and we don’t apologize for having the back of women and girls all across this country that are fleeing persecution and fleeing the kind of extreme policies you’re promoting,” Newsom said. “What my opponent believes is that some 10-year-old that’s raped by her father should be forced to bear her brother or sister. His position is extreme. And that is something I hope the people of California consider when they go and vote this November.”

Dahle countered that Newsom’s position and his backing of Proposition 1 — which would guarantee the right to an abortion under the state constitution — is extreme.

Dahle also attacked Newsom on homelessness, pointing out that he pledged to solve the problem first as mayor of San Francisco and then as governor, but it’s worse than ever in the city and across the state. Newsom touted the many steps his administration has taken to address homelessness — from getting 68,000 people off the streets by turning hotels and other buildings into homeless housing, to setting up CARE Court to order people with severe mental illness into treatment.

But Dahle argued that taking one look at the streets of San Francisco shows it’s not working.

“He throws money at everything, but what are the results?” Dahle said. “The theme of this debate is that the governor has all of this great talk, but the policies don’t actually fix the problem.”

In comments to reporters after the debate, Dahle said he used to enjoy bringing his family to San Francisco, but he wouldn’t do it today.

“I don’t feel safe,” he said.

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If he were elected, Dahle said his first order of business to address homelessness would be tackling the fentanyl epidemic by declaring a state of emergency. He also supports creating encampment-free buffer zones around schools.

One topic that surprisingly didn’t come up Sunday, but dominated Newsom’s first term and led his opponents to force a recall election last year, was his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Newsom handily defeated the effort to oust him, with nearly 62% of Californians backing him — a similar number to the support he’s receiving in polls this fall leading up to the Nov. 8 election.

When taking questions from reporters after the debate, Newsom called for the resignation of Los Angeles City Council members who took part in a recorded conversation where racist and crude remarks were made. Former Council President Nury Martinez resigned following the scandal, but two other councilmembers involved have not stepped down.

But with presidential talk swirling, in what may become one of the biggest questions of a second Newsom term, Lagos asked the governor if he would commit to serving all four years if he is re-elected. The governor said yes.

Even so, Kousser said the debate provided a glimpse into what Newsom’s presidential campaign strategy might be.

“This is a preview that he’s going to offer an unapologetic defense of California’s record and the California model,” he said. “He said over and over again ‘California has no peer. I couldn’t be more proud of all of the accomplishments.’”

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