Capitol Alert

If you think California is too expensive, John Cox says he’s your guy for 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.

California’s home prices have risen more than 7 percent since last year, to a median of $540,000.

Median rents for a two-bedroom are $2,800 per month, far higher than the rest of the country. Californians pay 12 cents more per gallon of gasoline than they did last year. The average price is about $3.40 per gallon, among the highest in the nation.

The Republican running for California governor says Democrats are to blame.

Gubernatorial candidate John Cox faults Gov. Jerry Brown, and his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for the state’s high cost of living.

“He’s a Bay Area elitist. He’s going to be more of the same,” John Cox said in an interview on Fox News in May, referring to Newsom. “More Jerry Brown, big government, more taxes and a crushing affordability problem. We just can’t continue down that road.”

Cox over the past few months has been refining his campaign message, focused almost exclusively on California’s cost-of-living problems. Republicans see it as a compelling platform that could convince voters to cross party lines in a state Democrats now control.

“Cox is seizing on issues where the governing party is vulnerable,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. “They’re raising taxes, and there’s a housing and homelessness crisis that happened on their watch.”

State Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said Cox’s message could help his candidacy, but also the Republican Party as a whole as it sheds voters and loses power in Sacramento. Both Cox and Brulte are hammering Newsom on his record as a former mayor of San Francisco, pointing to the city’s sky-high housing costs and homelessness problem as an indication of where he’d take California if elected.

They note that California is home to more homeless people than any other state in the nation and that a large share — roughly 20 percent — of the state’s population lives in poverty. They say people are fleeing California, an argument backed by a 2018 analysis by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office that found between 2007 and 2016, a million more people moved from California to other states than moved to California from other states.

“The Democrats have been in charge for eight years…they could have fixed this,” Brulte said. “The issue of affordability is something that average Californians understand instinctively…so John talking about it allows him to connect with voters who struggle with these issues every day.”

Cox’s ideas are simple: Repeal last year’s gas tax increase, halt construction of a bullet train connecting Northern and Southern California and roll back land-use regulations for housing. He wants to change an California Environmental Quality Act he says has stifled development. His campaign hashtag is #HelpIsOnTheWay.

But he has offered little substance on what specifically he’d do. He likes to say he will fix things by taking on the special interests, or as he puts it, “clean out the barn.” His policy agenda, outlined on his campaign website, is seven paragraphs long.

On it, he says, “We need to unshackle the productive capacity of California’s vast economic engines. The only way to rescue California from a likely financial meltdown is to unleash small business, roll back oppressive regulations and focus on economic growth.”

Newsom, too, is talking about about the struggle to make ends meet in the Golden State. He acknowledges Democrats should shoulder some blame, noting that “it happened on our watch.”

He’s outlined an expensive policy agenda that includes several ideas on possible ways to increase housing supply and address homelessness, with an approach that reflects his liberal views. Newsom supports the gas tax increase his party implemented, noting that it’s intended to pay for $52 million in road repairs and other transportation improvements.

Newsom says he believes the underlying issue is income inequality — the economic gap between the rich and poor — and the way to address it is to lift people out of poverty. To do so, he says if elected governor, he’d work to enact universal health care, expand subsidized preschool and childcare, fund college and job training programs and bolster tax credits to increase housing production, among other proposals.

“We can no longer tolerate, fundamentally no longer tolerate, the unjust equilibrium of economic and wealth inequality,” Newsom said. “We are the most prosperous state in America, but we are also the poorest.”

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Cox declined to participate in this story. In past interviews, he has voiced support for a major overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act, lower taxes and reducing regulations to create a more “friendly” business environment.

Those ideas fall far short of what is needed to understand how he’d address the state’s deep affordability challenges, said David Shulman, an economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast specializing in housing.

“Cutting regulations is very easy to talk about, but very hard to do,” Shulman said. “Every Republican candidate for governor since at least 1966 has said ‘cut red tape.’ It’s the boilerplate talking point, but you have to have some kind of a concrete solution to what red tape you want to deal with and what regulation do you want to change. Otherwise it’s just a talking point.”

Shulman said regulatory changes needed to address the statewide housing shortage risk angering homeowners. That could put Cox in an uncomfortable position.

“You have to amend CEQA, but you also have to override local zoning,” Shulman said. “That’ll cause homeowner groups to rise up, some from his conservative base in Orange County, but also the liberals of Berkeley.”

Political strategists say, however, Cox’s message is strong and rooted in Californians’ deep anxiety about living in one of the most expensive states in the nation.

“I think you can give Cox credit for the theme of addressing economic concerns — it appears to be a populist message aimed at working men and women,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. “But are there enough voters in play to change the outcome of the race? It’s not clear to me that there are, or that voters will view him as a credible messenger.”

Carl DeMaio, a Republican and conservative San Diego talk show host is leading the effort this November to repeal the gas tax increase, applauds Cox’s strong support for repeal. Still, he said it may not be enough.

“I think it’s hard for John Cox. He’s running under a Republican brand that has been tarnished,” DeMaio said. “The Republicans can blame the Democrats, but they also have to blame themselves for not offering a bold alternative to the ideas that the Democrats have offered.”

DeMaio acknowledged Newsom’s frontrunner status. The Democrat has an edge over Cox in both fundraising and public opinion polling. DeMaio said that advantage has perhaps overshadowed Cox’s message.

“I think when he says, “Help is on the way,’ he’s in the right ballpark, but I’m waiting for a more robust, direct connection,” DeMaio said. “Maybe I’m not hearing it because he lacks the funds. It’s very expensive to campaign in California, and a lot of folks will not give you money if they don’t think you can win.”

As he takes on the Democratic establishment, Stutzman said Cox must also be careful not to alienate Democratic and independent voters, who outnumber Republicans in voter registration. He must expand to voters beyond his Republican base to have any chance come November.

That strategy is reflected in his first campaign ad of the general election. In it, Cox doesn’t talk about his conservative political ideology.

Instead, he speaks about lifestyle.

“Forgotten Californians have been left behind,” he says. “Millions drive to cities they love, but can’t afford to live in because the rents are too high and the homes are too expensive.”

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