Bill Whalen

Why isn’t John Cox spotlighting the differences between Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom?

Republican candidate John Cox, left, shakes hands with Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom after a California gubernatorial debate at KQED in San Francisco on Oct. 8.
Republican candidate John Cox, left, shakes hands with Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom after a California gubernatorial debate at KQED in San Francisco on Oct. 8. AP

To figure out what’s missing in California’s governor’s race, let’s revisit Princess Diana’s famous lament about the decay of her royal union: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

I don’t understand why Republican John Cox hasn’t brought Gov. Jerry Brown into his campaign – not as an object of praise, but as a wedge against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

I’m not suggesting Cox try to anoint himself as the heir apparent to Brown. The two differ on climate change and a host of economic, social and other issues.

However, if Cox is to have even a puncher’s chance on Nov. 6, he’ll have to win over nonaffiliated voters – a slew of them since they outnumber registered Republicans. One way to do that is by highlighting the concept of the governor as the last line of defense against an over-ambitious and big-spending Legislature.


Indeed, that’s part of the Brown legacy this past decade. While he talked a futuristic streak on high-speed rail, Delta tunnels and climate satellites and took water-to-wine credit for turning a massive budget deficit into a healthy surplus, he has also stymied some of the Legislature’s worst ideas and kept a steady liberal march from breaking a full-fledged gallop.

What happens if the proudly progressive Newsom takes the reins of government?

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Bill Whalen

If I were Cox, I’d ask voters the following questions:

Would Newsom veto a bill to limit the number of rifles and shotguns that can be purchased in a month, or another to ban gun shows at San Francisco’s Cow Palace?

Would Newson veto a bill allowing non-citizens (legal and illegal) to serve on local and state boards and commissions?

Would Newsom veto a bill to require public university student health centers to provide abortion medication by 2020?

Brown vetoed all those bills this year.

Dig deeper into Brown’s record and you’ll find a 2013 veto of a blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles; a 2015 veto of a bill for transitional kindergarten or state preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds; a 2016 veto of a bill to mandate pay, meal breaks and other labor protections for caregivers, nannies and house cleaners; and a 2017 veto of a bill that would have forced presidential candidates to make their tax returns public before appearing on the California ballot.

Ask yourself, in all instances: “WWGD” – “what would Gavin do?”

Curiously, this isn’t part of the Cox strategy. While history lessons aren’t an easy sell with voters, we are in an inflection point in California’s timeline.

For the first time in nearly 130 years, there’s the distinct prospect of one Democrat succeeding another as governor. Newsom, however, isn’t campaigning to continue Brown’s legacy. He’s suggested scaling back high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels, two prize Brown projects.

And Newsom’s spend-happy agenda – universal pre-K, job training, single-payer healthcare – isn’t in keeping with Brown’s tradition of turning budget unveilings into lectures on fiscal downturns.

Pitting Brown against Newsom isn’t enough stave off what looks like an inevitable Democratic win, but it would have brought some needed flair to the governor’s race. And it might have tested Brown’s complicated relationship with his likely successor.

Could there be one more Cox-Newsom debate? And any chance Brown would be willing to moderate?

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


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