The Only Thing That Mattered in Gov’s TV Debate on Tuesday

CAL BUZZ REPORT--Nothing that transpired in Tuesday’s “debate” among candidates for governor of California changed the one and only political question worth discussing about the June 5 preliminary vote: Will Antonio Villaraigosa finish second and set up a serious runoff contest, or will the fall campaign be the Gavin Newsom Coronation Tour?

Based on his subdued, low-energy performance in the statewide televised debate, Tony V appeared to believe he’s got the crucial runner-up spot in June in the bag.

But that’s far from certain, unless his campaign and the independent expenditure committee working on his behalf can turn out a powerful Latino vote to slingshot the former L.A. mayor past Republicans John Cox and/or Travis Allen.

Offered a soft pitch he should have knocked out of the park – whether gender or ethnicity should matter in the election – Villaraigosa instead bunted: He was the first Latino speaker of the Assembly and mayor of Los Angeles, he noted. But, he said, “I want to be a governor that unites this great state. This is the most diverse state in the whole world … Yes, I would be the first, and I recognize that, but I also recognize th at the role of the first is to open up the door for the rest.”

You can just imagine how electrifying that would be to Latino voters – voters without whom, Tony V (apparently trying not to disturb moderate and conservative whites he’d need against Newsom) might not even make it to November.

As a leading Latino operative tied into the pro-Tony forces told us: he was too cautious at a time when many of the voters he needs don’t even know there’s an election coming up.

The best thing Tony V had going in Tuesday’s debate was the incendiary performance by the rabid right-winger Allen, who has a bright future as a radio ranter if this whole governor thing doesn’t work out. If Allen can steal the Trumpistas from Cox, who seems like a loudmouth version of ex-L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan, the two GOP candidates may leave a space for Villaraigosa to come in second.

The Calbuzz scorecard. For the most part, Villaraigosa seemed tired, flat and devoid of passion for the incredibly challenging gig of succeeding Jerry Brown, California’s best governor since his father. There were moments, however, when his above-the-fray performance seemed mature and practical-minded compared to his rivals, as when he spoke specifically and substantively about what he had done as mayor in standing up to public employee unions to begin to address L.A.’s huge pension liability costs.

Similarly, Treasurer John Chiang deconstructed complex fiscal issues, from housing tax credits to the “bar bell system” of wealth distribution in California, and set forth concrete actions he has, or would, take to address them. But Chiang is the ultimate technocrat and badly needs a charisma implant.

As the front-runner and presumptive June 5 winner,  Newsom took most of the fire in the event and, to his credit, remained cool, articulate and composed.

Also: the tallest person on stage. Crucial factor for those who subscribe to the theory that the biggest candidate always wins.

Delaine Eastin consistently was the most wound up of the contenders. We admire her passion and energy, but Eastin is a one-note symphony:  she’s got only one gear – pedal-to-the-metal red line – - and one answer to everything – education, education and more education – which makes it seem like she thinks she”s running for her old job of state school supe, instead of governor.

The white-haired Cox is impressive looking, a central casting Republican governor, but bangs a little too heavy on the keys, apparently in an effort to seem as crazy as Allen in order to appeal to the Trumpkins base of the GOP that is most likely to vote in the primary.

Amid his throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks act,  the knuckle-dragging assemblyman Allen took the toughest shot at Prince Gavin: “If you can’t trust Gavin with your best friend’s wife, how can you trust him with the state?” Allen asked, referring to a 2005 affair Newsom had with a staffer who was married to his campaign manager and best friend.

It was a pretty good line, but Prince Gavin knocked it down by noting the irony of such a critique coming from an avid supporter of Donald Trump, then launching into his standard me culpa, mea maxima culpa about how the skeevy episode actually has Made Me a Better Person. Gag.

To the surprise of no one, the Democrats all opposed Trump’s border wall and said they wouldn’t have horse-traded it even for safety for DACA dreamers. They all supported high speed rail, expanded health care, early childhood education and other liberal orthodoxies. The Republicans supported Trump’s border wall, opposed sanctuary cities and everything else that’s popular among most California voters.

Our old friend Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” did his best to wrangle the candidates, but with 18 questions and answers held to 60 seconds what viewers experienced was a sort of political speed-dating with policy garnish tossed about.

A final word.Our four colleagues on the press panel mostly asked good questions, but with no time for follow-ups, they often went to waste as the candidates just riffed on their campaign talking points.

We’ve said it before and we say it again: get rid of the damn reporter panels in these set piece “debates”  and let a skilled moderator like Chuck ringmaster the whole affair, steering the conversation in ways that get the candidates talking to and against each other.

There were no injuries.

(Jerry Robertsis a California journalist who writes, blogs and hosts a TV talk show about politics, policy and media. Phil Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for California Gov. Gray Davis and was the founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. This piece appeared in CalBuzz.

-CW