Navigating a litmus test of the left, the four Democratic candidates for governor face a pivotal question: Are you with Tom Steyer or against him?
Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire set to speak at this weekend’s state Democratic convention in San Diego, has been funding a petition drive and TV commercials seeking the immediate impeachment of President Trump.
They’re on record as calling for immediate impeachment proceedings in Congress, while their rivals — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang — are taking wait-and-see stances.
It’s widely assumed that two Democrats will emerge from the June 5 primary to face off in the November election.
The impeachment issue didn’t arise during an hour-long debate Thursday night in which the four hopefuls mainly staked out different focuses of their progressive agendas and rarely contradicted one another.
But afterward, Times of San Diego took the temperature of Eastin and Villaraigosa. (Chiang and Newsom left before an opportunity to meet with a reporter, and did not respond to email requests for comment.)
Villaraigosa, 65 and a former Assembly speaker, said: “Increasingly it looks like Donald Trump is engaged in obstruction of justice. But we’ve got to prove that.”
He said impeaching a president “requires us putting a plan together — a plan around the notion that you’ve got to prove that he’s obstructed justice.”
Pulling the trigger now could backfire, he suggests.
“One, we don’t have the votes,” he said while greeting people on stage at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. “We’re going to have to make the case to the American people and to the Congress.”
But he noted how the public is seeing “more and more revelations about the complicity between the Trump administration and the Russians. When you see that he fired [FBI Director James] Comey and is trying to undermine the [Robert] Mueller investigation. But we’ve got to make the case first.”
The case has been made in Eastin’s mind.
“I actually think he should be” impeached now, she said. “I think he’s done several things. But all the indicators are that he actually was colluding with the Russians during the time, or the people who were working with him.”
Calling herself a student of the Constitution, Eastin said of Trump: “I’ve never seen anybody who was this dismissive of the due process of the United States. It’s really quite shocking. He proposes — oh look, a pony. He’s like he gets these ideas that he pulls out of the sky.”
Last June, a spokesman for Newsom, 50, told the San Jose Mercury-News that the candidate thought time had arrived to pursue impeachment proceedings.
“While impeachment should never be casually invoked as a political tactic, President Trump’s actions are so egregious and his rhetoric is so deceitful that we should begin the process to obtain the facts and the truth,” said Dan Newman, the Newsom rep.
In the same story, a spokeswoman for Chiang, 55, said: “Like many Americans, he’s very concerned about what’s going on. He’s very much about making sure we go through the due process and really making sure we have the evidence that President Trump did break the law” before calling for impeachment.
On Thursday night, before an audience of 700, the four gubernatorial hopefuls made efforts to brand themselves as the most progressive on gun control, climate change, immigration, education, taxation and homelessness.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, who said she hasn’t endorsed anyone yet, acted as moderator of the debate — and took selfies for the benefit of a millennial son. She followed appearances on stage by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and Rep. Susan Davis.
Jessica Hayes, chairwoman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, opened the event by declaring: “One of them will be the next governor.”
Also sponsored by the Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club and the Sycuan Indian Band (which provided swag bags for attendees), the debate didn’t turn discordant until the end, when Mitchell noted a critique of Newsom’s allegedly shifting stance on single-payer health care.
Newsom has been accused of “flip-flopping” on single-payer health care, tailoring his answers to the audience.
But Newsom, who touted a universal health care plan he saw enacted in San Francisco, said: “I want to defeat Trumpism, but also defeatist Democrats” hesitant to push for a government-run state health insurance.
Recent polls show Newsom barely edging Villaraigosa — narrowing a 5-point gap in December to 2 points in January. But many voters are still undecided.
So Eastin, the former state superintendent of public instruction, contends she still has a shot at becoming California’s first female governor.
“I’ve run 14 times, and I was supposed to lose most of them,” she said after the debate, responding to a question about a #MeToo wave possibly giving her an electoral lift. “And I won all 14. So this is not my first rodeo.”
The 70-year-old San Diego native (whose father was in the Navy) said she’s been the underdog before but makes up for any disadvantage by working “really hard.”
She took a shot at Newsom.
“So I went up to Mount Shasta, and they’ve been trying to get Gavin Newsom there for all times he’s run and as lieutenant governor, and he never has time. I was down in San Luis [Obispo]. He said: ‘Give us $20,000, and we’ll show up.’ I’m all over the state, and I’m meeting all kinds of people. I got great staff. I’m talking.”
Regarding Newsom’s supposed unsteadiness on single-payer, Eastin said: “If that gets out, and the public sees it, they may have some questions about it. I just feel like I’m working very hard to be consistent and to be everywhere, and I have a brass backbone.”
Villaraigosa made no overt calls for Latino support during the debate, but didn’t deny his roots afterward.
“I grew up in Boyle Heights, a community of Jews, Mexicans, Italians, Japanese-Americans,” he told Times of San Diego. “It was a very diverse community, and ever since I was a young boy I’ve always tried to be a leader for all of us. A uniter.”
But he said there’s no question excitement exists in the Latino community “about the fact that we could be breaking the glass ceiling.” (He’d actually be the first Latino elected governor since Romualdo Pacheco in the 1870s.)
Villaraigosa agreed that his the path to victory includes “energizing the community that looks to me as someone who’s been there, a trailblazer. But I want to speak to the hearts and minds of every Californian.”
The three-day California Democratic Party State Convention began Friday at the San Diego Convention Center with a series of caucus meetings, workshops and panel discussions.
Some 3,400 delegates will vote Saturday on endorsements for governor, U.S. senator and other statewide offices.
The delegates will adopt the 2018 party platform Sunday and ratify earlier endorsements for congressional and legislative races.
Keynote speeches will be delivered Saturday by Sens. Kamala Harris, D- California, and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D- San Francisco, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, billionaire Steyer, founder and president of NextGen America, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas.
Newsom, Villaraigosa, Chiang and Eastin are set to speak Saturday, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and her challengers, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Pat Harris.
Lieutenant governor candidates Jeff Bleich, Ed Hernandez and Eleni Kounalakis will take part together in a forum Saturday. Candidates for other statewide offices will also speak Saturday.
The general sessions include programs on mobilizing women to run for office and vote, a celebration of black voters, a series of speeches by labor leaders and millennial elected and party officials.
Saturday’s luncheon program will feature California Democratic Party Chair Eric C. Bauman and remarks by national politics and policy journalist David Dayen and Jon Lovett, who was a presidential speechwriter for Barack Obama and now hosts the weekly podcast “Lovett or Leave It.”
The dinner program Saturday will feature Democrats serving in municipal offices discussing the policies they have implemented. San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole will be the master of ceremonies.
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Garvey Unified School District Trustee Henry Lo and Palm Springs City Councilwoman Lisa Middleton, the first transgender person elected to a city council in California, are set to speak.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, will conclude the program by discussing the interplay between city government and the federal government.
— City News Service contributed to this report.