Capitol Alert

What John Cox doesn’t want to talk about in his race for California governor

‘We’re going to start using our money efficiently,’ says John Cox in call for gas tax repeal

Republican governor candidate John Cox speaks in favor of repealing the gas tax at the Capitol in Sacramento on Monday, June 18, 2018.
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Republican governor candidate John Cox speaks in favor of repealing the gas tax at the Capitol in Sacramento on Monday, June 18, 2018.

During his final two terms as California governor, Democrat Jerry Brown has made climate change his signature issue: He led delegations to United Nations conferences in Paris and Bonn. Last year, he pushed through a decade extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So would Republican businessman John Cox continue his predecessor’s work if he is elected this November to be California’s next governor? He doesn’t want to discuss it.

“We’re here to talk about the gas tax, about the affordability of life in California. There’s going to be plenty of time and opportunity to debate other issues,” Cox said at a Capitol press conference last month when asked about his beliefs on climate change. “The people of this state want action on the affordability, their ability to actually put food on the table, save a little money at the end of the month, and we’ll address those other issues when they come up.”

Seeking to become the first Republican elected statewide since 2006, Cox has focused his underdog campaign on two key promises that have galvanized the state’s conservative base: repealing a recent increase to transportation fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs, and undoing the controversial “sanctuary state” law that limits how police can assist federal immigration authorities.

That emphasis comes at the expense of a public airing of his positions on just about any other issue that could come before a governor who will wade into a growing confrontation with the Trump administration and must sign or veto hundreds of bills passed annually by the liberal Legislature.

Cox has declined interview requests from The Sacramento Bee to discuss his plans for Brown’s environmental programs, addressing the growing homelessness crisis and abortion rights.

“We have the highest poverty rate in the country and millions of forgotten Californians can’t afford food, utilities, gas or housing,” campaign spokesman Matt Shupe wrote in an email. “We’re talking about issues Californians tell us they care about most. That is our prerogative.”

A new strategy

Sticking to a few key points is a common campaign strategy, allowing politicians to craft and hammer home a core message for voters.

Cox previously sought to enter the political arena as a crusader against government corruption, including by sponsoring an unsuccessful initiative that would have expanded legislative representation at the local level. With his opposition to the gas tax increase, which kicked in last November despite an overflowing state budget, he has reinvented himself as the champion of the “forgotten Californian” who will make it affordable to live here again.

Republican consultant Jennifer Jacobs said Cox has adopted the right approach: Appeal to voters who feel disenfranchised by Democratic rule in California. Don’t get mired in things that are not a top priority for those people.

“It sounds like he’s being a very good, disciplined campaigner,” she said. “The gas tax is a perfect issue for him to be running on, and if I was him, it’s all I would be talking about, too.”

But there’s a fine line between controlling the message and losing it altogether, said Rob Stutzman, who oversaw communications for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican governor of California, during his 2003 election.

“The risk becomes that the definition of his candidacy is the lack of positions,” Stutzman said.

Cox still has plenty of time to build out his platform, he added. For issues that may be a distraction, the trick is to bring the questions back to the central themes of your campaign.

“When you run for governor, there are dozens of issues that it is reasonable to have at least a modicum of an answer,” Stutzman said.

Shupe provided links to previous interviews and candidate debates where he said Cox had already addressed The Bee’s questions.

Cox participated in dozens of forums during the primary, Shupe wrote, most of which his opponent in November, Democratic Lt. Gov. “Gavin Newsom, skipped. We attended — and answered most of these questions.”

Skeptical about climate change

Cox has told various news outlets that he believes the climate is changing, but he is skeptical about how much of that is caused by humans, and he thinks it may provide some benefits.

He opposes two of the state’s most prominent policies for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions: cap-and-trade and mandates for California to generate most of its electricity from renewable sources in the coming decades. In his provided comments, Cox did not weigh in on notable state programs to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, California’s largest source of greenhouse gases, such as regulating tailpipes and providing incentives for electric vehicles.

No plan on homelessness

After Newsom last month released a plan to assist the state’s skyrocketing homeless population, Cox declined to discuss whether he had specific proposals of his own for providing emergency shelter, permanent housing or mental health treatment.

Cox has blamed the rising cost of building housing for kicking people out of their homes in California. He has said he would cut regulations like the California Environmental Quality Act to make construction easier and cheaper but suggested nonprofit organizations and religious groups should take the lead on providing services to the homeless.

Abortion is personal

Liberals are trying to make an issue of Cox’s opposition to abortion, particularly as President Donald Trump nominates a new justice to the Supreme Court who could help overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made it legal across the country.

Shortly before announcing his own brief run for president in 2006, Cox told conservative activists that he opposed abortion in all circumstances, including rape and incest. He has said in past interviews and a book that his views were shaped by learning that his mother, who was raped by his biological father, would have terminated her pregnancy had abortion been legal then.

Shupe wrote that Cox has “been endorsed by the California ProLife Council” but “will uphold the law.” In California, with its staunch support for abortion rights, legislators long ago passed a law that would protect abortion access in the state if Roe v. Wade were to be reversed.

Garry South, a Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ election to the governor’s office in 1998, said he considers Cox’s main talking points “less prioritization and more obfuscation.” Cox is trying to avoid giving Newsom fodder that could be used to excite Democrats, he said, and in liberal California, outrage over a bipartisan issue like gas prices is his best bet.

“The problem for Cox is that he can’t talk about most of his positions because they are diametrically opposed to where most Californians are on the issues,” South said. “He doesn’t have a lot of tools in his toolkit.”

South said he would encourage Newsom to get Cox into a debate and pin him down on the things he doesn’t want to talk about. The two campaigns have been publicly squabbling over how many times and on what network to debate this fall.

“If I were Gavin Newsom, I would want to get John Cox up on that stage so that he can’t slide by in this campaign on the gas tax and the sanctuary state,” South said.

Bryan Anderson and Angela Hart of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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