Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Newsom has no excuse for avoiding debates

Debates aren’t taking place in top-of-the-ticket races in Ohio, Alabama and Michigan. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is avoiding his opponent, saying he has participated in debates that were a “disservice to democracy.”

Candidate debates are passé, or so front-running candidates, their consultants and some pundits would have us believe.

Gov. Jerry Brown deigned to have a single debate with his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, shown opposite the opening night game of the National Football League, and aired on Cal Channel, not quite a flame-throwing cable outlet.

But at least the old-school politician engaged. Not so with Brown’s heirs apparent, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Harris’ decision to stiff-arm her challenger, a Los Angeles lawyer named Ron Gold, is vaguely reasonable. Gold’s lifeless campaign could not fog a mirror.

But Newsom has no excuse.

His challenger, Ron Nehring, is no nebbish. A former California Republican Party chairman, Nehring is well-spoken and astute, the sort of guy who would make a fine state legislator, but has almost no chance of winning statewide in this blue state.

Difficult though it assuredly was, Newsom managed to carve time from his exhaustive schedule during his first term as lieutenant governor to host a television talk show and write “Citizenville,” a book in which he urges greater civic engagement.

I cannot say I’m among the people who perused “Citizenville,” but I did watch Newsom attempt to discuss it last year on “The Colbert Report” over the host’s sarcastic remarks. “I want to democratize voices. I want real citizen engagement. I want two-way conversations. I want citizenship to be redefined,” Newsom told Stephen Colbert.

In the spirit of all those bromides and more, why not debate?

A lieutenant governor doesn’t have many duties, but there are issues to discuss and a ready-made audience. Whoever occupies the office has seats on the University of California Board of Regents and the California State University Board of Trustees.

Newsom, who aspires to play to younger voters, could burnish his reputation as an oracle of the millennials by engaging Nehring in debates on topics relevant to students – such as, say, student debt.

In “Citizenville,” Newsom urges that government get on the cutting edge of technology by better using social media to involve the citizenry. Here’s a novel idea: Politicians could actually go to where voters are, and maybe even let students ask a few questions about the price of textbooks, and whether the state could use some of its wealth to help students refinance their debt.

Imagine, noontime appearances at Cal State San Marcos, UC Riverside, Fresno State, UC Merced, Chico State, UC Santa Cruz, maybe even my alma mater, the great Humboldt State University.

Speaking of which, Nehring and Newsom have diametrically different views of marijuana legalization. I’d pay to see them face off at a campus where 4/20 is like a high holy day, without the holiness.

Newsom is preparing to lead the 2016 campaign for a marijuana legalization ballot measure.

Nehring has a compelling story to tell about why he opposes legalizing another mind-alternating substance. He’s the son of alcoholic parents, and says he reacted by never having a drink or a smoke. It’s a serious issue worthy of rational debate by two smart politicians.

It may never happen. The election is less than a month away. Newsom spokesman Sean Clegg said Newsom would be engage in debate “at the appropriate time.”

“Truth be told, in his travels, he has not been overwhelmed with bated-breath requests for a lieutenant governor debate,” Clegg said.

Nehring says the trend of politicians avoiding debate is troubling. “We already know that incumbents hold a tremendous advantage,” he said. “At a minimum, incumbents can be challenged face-to-face in a debate. Absent that, our democracy is ill-served.”

In 1994, not that long ago, Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren had nothing to worry about from his challenger, then-Assemblyman Tom Umberg, an Orange County Democrat.

Still, Lungren engaged with Umberg in no fewer than 11 debates from one end of the state to another. I didn’t agree with some of Lungren’s positions. But how could you not admire a front-runner who took part in 11 unscripted debates? He was reelected by 14 percentage points.

Based on polls, voters don’t care about this year’s election. They care even less about this year’s election for lieutenant governor. Part of that is our fault.

But part of the blame rests with otherwise thoughtful front-runners who prefer to hide behind their leads.