Wednesday night was the first debate in the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, an election that could significantly reshape the future of California.
But the governor declined an invitation to attend the event, held at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.
Also missing: Caitlyn Jenner, the best-known candidate running to replace him, and Larry Elder, the conservative talk show host who is the leading challenger in the polls.
That is perhaps not surprising in California, a state where political apathy runs high and voter turnout is low. It is typical to hear that people do not know that Newsom is facing a recall, let alone the names of his challengers.
On Wednesday, just four of the 41 people running against Newsom did take the stage: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and John Cox, who unsuccessfully ran for governor against Newsom in 2018.
The wide-ranging debate covered drug cartels, the coronavirus, education, wildfires, housing, cancel culture and more. The common theme? Newsom’s failures.
Ose explained delays in state unemployment payments this way, though it could have been an answer to any question, delivered by any of the candidates: “This really does lay right at Gov. Newsom’s feet.”
For 90 minutes, the candidates heaped criticism on Newsom’s policies in front of an audience of dozens of maskless people. (While Los Angeles County has a universal indoor mask mandate, Orange County does not. Seeing that many bare faces took me aback at first.)
Cox said he opposed the vaccine mandate for state employees that Newsom recently imposed. Ose objected to mask mandates. Faulconer said he did not support teaching critical race theory in schools. Kiley spoke out against vaccine passports and offering cash prizes to people who get their shots.
“It’s a perfect case study for the perversity of California politics,” Kiley said.
The debate felt more like a GOP primary than a debate in the California governor race, and not just because the candidates were Republicans.
Just outside the debate room, black-and-white photos of Nixon flanked the walls. A bronze bust of the former president watched passersby. In one corner, a machine advertised that it could stretch a penny into the shape of Nixon’s face.
Toward the end of the debate, the candidates touched on a favorite criticism of Newsom: that people are moving out of the state. California’s population dropped last year for the first time in more than a century.
“People are voting with their feet,” Faulconer said. “The reality is that we have a governor who doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.”
Faulconer asked the audience to give a show of hands if they or someone they knew were thinking about leaving California. Several people raised one of their hands into the air.
Ose raised both.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.