Capitol Alert

Gavin Newsom learning what it’s like to be frontrunner for California governor

It wasn’t so much a debate as it was a pile on.

On stage with nearly all of his fellow candidates for governor Saturday morning, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom took fire from all sides.

Republicans during the town hall event at USC’s Bovard Auditorium argued that the frontrunner in the contest to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown would be unjustly swayed by labor union endorsements and campaign contributions. Support from heavyweight public employee groups like the California Teachers Association cloud his judgment, they contended.

At the same time, two of the leading Democrats in the race tried to yoke Newsom to what they view as failures of the education system, painting him as a willing bystander and defender of an unacceptable status quo. Newsom’s chief Democratic antagonists, Antonio Villaraigosa and John Chiang, also pressed the former San Francisco mayor to provide answers about how California could afford his liberal agenda, including a statewide, single-payer health care system he promised to champion as governor.

Republican John Cox, a businessman who is crusading against the influences of special interests in Sacramento, also slammed Newsom for his close ties to teacher unions.

“He collects a whole bunch of money there,” Cox said.

“We cannot keep graduating kids that are unprepared for the workforce,” he added. “That is consigning them to economic death.”

Newsom shot back that he’s committed to spending more on traditional public schools and said he counts himself as proud to have the support of teachers – public employees he believes have been made to feel “demoralized” in the broader education debate.

He added that under his tenure as mayor, the San Francisco school system was a top-performing urban district, though he acknowledged stubborn “achievement gap issues,” a disparity in performance among students based on their race, ethnicity and gender, and the socioeconomic status of their families.

Villaraigosa, who as mayor of Los Angeles angered teacher unions over his bid to wrest control of the city’s schools, chided Newsom over San Francisco’s undesirable distinction of having the worst African American student achievement of any county in the state.

“I don’t think we can gloss over (that) fact,” Villaraigosa said. “So you can’t just say, ‘We have a little bit of an achievement gap.’ We actually have a real achievement gap. And if this state is going to be a ‘Golden State,’ and it’s going to do what we should do, grow together. We’ve got to invest in every one of us.”

As a moderator tried to move things along, Chiang pounced, suggesting that the disparity in San Franicsco’s schools extended to Latino students and Pacific Islanders.

“We’re talking about a very select group that you may have high achievement that accounts for San Francisco,” Chiang said, directing his remarks to Newsom. “But when you are talking about the future of the state of California, they are being left behind.”

Newsom has led the race in every public poll, and has a considerable advantage in fundraising, ahead of the June 5 primary election. With Villaraigosa holding onto second place, the onus is on Chiang, the state treasurer, Democrat Delaine Eastin and the Republicans, including Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen, to change the dynamic of the race. This was their first time on the stage together.

Given an opening on education, Villaraigosa was the first to dig in, calling the inability of the system to lift up more Latino and African American students a “national tragedy and a national crisis.”

He said he wants to “double-down” on Brown’s local-control funding formula designed to target funding for needy areas. Villaraigosa said he would “fight anyone” that stands in the way of the notion that all children have a right to a “great education, under the Constitution.”

“The next governor is going to have to say, ‘This is the civil rights issue of our time, the economic issue of our time, the democracy issue of our time,’ ” he said.

Later, he and Chiang, who stress they back the idea in concept, trained their attention on Newsom over his support for government-run, universal health care without identifying a detailed way to pay for it, or acknowledging it would likely necessitate significant tax hikes.

Newsom argues the state is already spending nearly $370 billion a year on health care. California can replace the current fragmented, disjointed and wasteful system with universal coverage financed through the payroll tax system, he said. The current system is more costly, he repeated. He criticized those who say they prefer single-payer, but are doing nothing to advance it.

Chiang countered that single-payer won’t work unless the state gets significant contributions from the federal government.

He accused Newsom of playing both sides by allegedly telling opponents in the insurance industry that single-payer won’t be approved.

“Yes, I support single-payer, but the details are important,” he added. “You have to ask Gavin, how much are we going to increase payroll taxes? Are we going to support businesses in the state of California, or are we going to make it difficult to do business?”

Villaraigosa agreed that a top priority must be to defend Obamacare, and again derided the idea of supporting a single-payer system without sketching out the specifics as “snake oil,” pointing to Newsom as its chief salesman.

“Where’s the plan?” he goaded. “The answer is he doesn’t have one.”

At one point, Cox joined in the ribbing, asking why the state would stop at health care?

“Why don’t we have single-payer food?” he said, mockingly. “Why don’t we have single-payer housing?”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

Related stories from Sacramento Bee