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Democrats running for governor face off in San Francisco over healthcare, charter schools

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Reflecting a growing divide among California Democrats on single-payer healthcare and charter schools, California gubernatorial candidates landed on separate sides of those issues during a candidate forum in San Francisco Tuesday.

The most heated exchange came in a clash between former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom over how to pay for a universal healthcare system that would cover all Californians and dramatically reshape medical coverage in the state.

Villaraigosa implied that Newsom was dodging questions and selling “snake oil” about how to pay for state-sponsored single-payer healthcare. He said Newsom underestimated the complexities in creating a new system that replaces Medicare, Medi-Cal and insurance plans for government and private-sector employees.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re all for universal health care,” Villaraigosa said. “You can’t sign something like that without a plan. I’m not running to be all things to all people.”

Newsom said the hand-wringing over cost was a “specious argument.” He said most of the money needed to support a single-payer system already is being spent on the plans that it would replace — government-run exchanges and private healthcare plans.

“A single-payer system demonstrably has worked in countries around the world, countries substantially smaller in size and scope as the state of California, and I believe if we’re committed to it we could advance its principles,” he said.

The exchange over state-sponsored single-payer healthcare showed the biggest contrast between the Democrats. The issue was thrust into the spotlight by legislation in Sacramento that would have made the state responsible for Californians’ medical expenses. The bill was shelved amid concerns over the cost, which was estimated to be as high as $400 billion.

Former state schools chief Delaine Eastin was the only candidate to unequivocally throw her support behind the state legislation for single-payer, while state Treasurer John Chiang, like Villaraigosa, preached caution. Creating a single-payer healthcare system in California would require a more than $100-billion tax increase, Chiang said.

“I support single-payer, but we have to be truthful here,” Chiang said. “How many of you want to pay an additional 90% in taxes?”

The candidate forum, held at the City Club of San Francisco and sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle, was the second face-off among the Democratic candidates in three days. And much like the forum hosted by the National Union of Healthcare Workers in Anaheim on Sunday, there were few fireworks as the candidates agreed on nearly every topic raised.

Newsom remains the front-runner in polls and fundraising. He also has won endorsements from the politically influential California Nurses Assn. and California Teachers Assn.

Villaraigosa, who battled teachers’ unions when he was the mayor of Los Angeles, said he did not receive CTA’s endorsement because he refused to support a moratorium on charter schools. He also said the next governor must confront policies that the unions have long valued, such as seniority and tenure, because the state’s schools are failing children.

“We’ve got to address the fact that the system is broken, and so many poor kids and so many kids of color are not making it in this state,” he said.

Newsom countered that the debate should not be about who’s to blame, but rather how to fix the problem.

“Teachers are sick and tired of being treated as sparring partners, not working partners,” he said.

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