Bill Whalen

Where are the mavericks in race for California governor?

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom, left, and Antonio Villaraigosa shake hands after a debate May 8 in San Jose.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom, left, and Antonio Villaraigosa shake hands after a debate May 8 in San Jose. San Jose Mercury News

Like Oliver Twist (“Please, sir, I want more”), I crave the gruel that is a California gubernatorial debate.

We likely won’t have another televised forum before June 5 – a disservice to voters who are too seldom engaged in state government.

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Bill Whalen

Besides, there’s one question yet to be answered.

It’s not a further clarification of the candidates’ personal “sacrifice,” which came up at the end of the most recent debate in San Jose.

First of all, none of the major contenders vying to replace Gov. Jerry Brown has much hardship to show. Gavin Newsom, John Chiang and Travis Allen all get a six-figure government salary.

Besides, it’s not like Californians historically have shopped for a governor straight out of the pages of Horatio Alger. Among recent winners, only Arnold Schwarzenegger has a rags-to-riches tale. And none would be confused with the likes of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who wasted away for five years in a Hanoi prison, or Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost two limbs on a battlefield in Iraq.


The better question of sacrifice to pose to the candidates is not what pain they’ve felt, but what pain they would inflict on heir most ardent partisan followers.

Would Newsom ever dare offend the labor unions propping up his rise to the top of the primary field?

Would Allen or John Cox – the Republican more likely to reach November – take the populace’s side in an argument with President Donald Trump?

This failure to break free of the party bases suggests a flaw in California’s top-two primary system. In an open race with possibilities for creative voting blocs, candidates have preached to the choir rather than trying to convert agnostics.

Yes, there’s the independent campaign spending on behalf of Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa – presumably because he’s not as beholden to liberal special interests as Newsom. But the television spots don’t suggest that the former Los Angeles mayor is a non-conformist, much less a party heretic. It’s a strategy driven not by choice but necessity -- whatever it takes elevate a flat Villaraigosa to a second-place finish.

This is subject to revision should Villaraigosa survive the primary and then dare buck the Democratic Party on high-speed rail, pension debt or universal health care. Ditto for Cox and Allen should they stop running like a pair of gents who want to go to War – that’s the conservative town of War, West Virginia, which is culturally and philosophically not be confused with California.

Getting back to Oliver Twist, how sad for California that a maverick candidate is an orphaned notion in this year’s governor’s race.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at