This is the second in a series of Q&As with top gubernatorial recall candidates. Doug Ose was featured in April, and other candidates are being given the same chance to answer questions in this space.
John Cox (campaign website here) is not new to tussling with Gov. Gavin Newsom. The San Diego-area businessman was GOP standard bearer in the 2018 governor’s race. He lost by 23 points, but this time, Cox isn’t running directly against Newsom. Recall voters first will give Newsom thumbs up or down. Then if 50%-plus-one vote to recall, whichever other candidate gets the most votes will finish out Newsom’s term. And if Newsom prevails, then the GOP recall campaigns will serve as a warmup for the 2022 primary.
Sacto Politico: We don’t yet have a date for the recall election. How strange is that, and how much does it affect your campaign strategy not to have a solid timeline?
John Cox: It is obviously different from 2018. I was in the top 2. We had a date certain, and it was pretty orderly. This is a little bit more difficult to pin down. We also could still have other key candidates announce until the lieutenant governor announces the date of the recall.
It makes a difference in terms of donors and the voters actually paying attention. But that said, voters are paying attention somewhat because they’re still suffering under the effects of the shutdown. Even though it looks like we will be getting out of this on June 15, we still have Cal/OSHA telling us that we have to wear masks even though, really and truly, anyone who wants to be vaccinated can get the vaccine right now. Yet we are still being told we have to wear masks in workplaces and stores.
S/P: Speaking of the pandemic, have you been vaccinated and what advice do you have for others who haven’t been?
Cox: Yes. I consulted my doctors, and I have been vaccinated. I also had COVID in March of 2020. When Newsom first shut down the state, I was sick in bed. I may not have needed to get the vaccine as I probably still had some antibodies, but given my age and that I would be out meeting thousands of people, I think it was responsible to get vaccinated. My wife also got vaccinated, and we are feeling fine.
For others, it is a personal decision. You should consult your doctor. It’s a bad disease. I didn’t like it. I had several friends who ended up in an ICU. One almost died, but he was almost 77 and in weak health to begin with. But studies show if you are under 50 and in good health, the chances of having any serious ramifications [from Covid] are probably less than one-tenth of one percent. We’ve really gotten away from that perspective, and I think part of that is political.
I think the bigger question is, “Why aren’t people getting vaccinated like they should?” It’s clear people don’t trust government that much. Either that, or they don’t think the risk is worse than the extra protection you get from it. This is not the polio vaccine. If you got the polio virus, chances are you would get paralyzed for life. This is very different. This virus is bad, but if you are of a certain age and health, you are probably going to be fine.
S/P: People have criticized your use of the bear as a gimmick, but those in politics know novelty can help reach more people to share your more serious ideas. But you are critical of Gov. Newsom’s own gimmick to offer $116 million in lottery prizes and incentives to get more people vaccinated. The money is ultimately coming from federal sources. So what is wrong with this gimmick in service to a very real public health need?
Cox: The two aren’t comparable. Obviously, [the bear] is an advertising gimmick that’s done to call attention. It’s a fun way to identify me with something. That is very different than the government paying people to get a vaccine that, frankly, they should want to get on their own.
But Mr. Newsom is using taxpayer money. I don’t buy the idea that because the money is federal that it’s expendable somehow. Taxpayers are the ones supplying that money. It is all part of this program of Mr. Newsom to just rain down money on certain people. In the process, I think he’s thinking this is a way to buy votes and get people to rally around his defense of his awful leadership.
S/P: The Sacramento Be recently reported that the nonprofit of the Governor’s wife receives big donations from companies that regularly lobby the state and that she has made more than $2.3 million since its founding in 2011. What is your reaction?
Cox: This is of the same piece as the French Laundry. But let me tell this isn’t about just the French Laundry. It is also about Blue Cross. It is about PG&E. Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente have also made “behested payments,” which are donations to charities and other nonprofit organizations in elected officials’ names. It is about umpteen number of other examples that people read in the paper. They see this stuff and say, “Gee, are these politicians really telling me the truth, or are they telling me something because some group behind the scenes is funding his wife’s charity, or his campaign, or an independent expenditure campaign.”
In my business life, I have to have the trust and confidence of my customers, my associates, my investors, my employees. If I lose that, I’m done. It just seems politicians do all these things and go to the edge of what they can legally do without regard to whether it looks bad to their constituencies. That has to end. We need political leadership that builds trust and deserves trust.
S/P: Do you favor legal prohibitions on this activity, or do you believe politicians and their spouses should continue to follow essentially an honor system to avoid appearances of influence peddling?
Cox: I once sponsored an initiative that would require legislators to wear the logos of their sponsors. This was a tongue-in-cheek poke at legislators who basically work for those funders and don’t work for the people. But I think it’s ultimately up to the voters to pay attention and hold these people accountable when they vote.
S/P: The top issues on your web site are to slash taxes and make California more affordable. The state’s business taxes are already quite low, aren’t they? What other specific tax cuts are you proposing?
Cox: Well since we are on the subject of truth, I will need to politely take issue with your idea that our taxes somehow are low.
S/P: I said on the business side.
Cox: Now remember you are talking to a CPA. I got my CPA in 1976, the same year Bruce Jenner won the decathlon by the way. Boy, have things changed, haven’t they. California’s corporate tax rate is 8.84%, which is one of the highest in the nation.
(Editor’s note: California’s corporate income tax ranks 8th highest in the U.S. However, other states impose additional business taxes, such as on gross receipts and with fewer or no deductions for expenses. All combined, the TaxFoundation.org ranks California’s total business tax climate as middle of the pack at 28th. So overall business taxes in California are neither as good as the question first suggested, nor as bad as Mr. Cox indicated.)
Also California has one of the highest individual tax rates in the country, and it’s not just real rich people who pay tax at a high rate. The tax rates on California individuals go up pretty quickly. I think the 6% rate is for around $75,000 [for a couple]. You live in Sacramento, so you know that 75 grand isn’t a lot to live on there, not with where rents are. You are talking about a fairly hefty marginal tax rate as well when you get into $80,000, $90,000 and $100,000, which is certainly not upper class.
We need to reduce taxes, reduce waste and reduce inefficient spending. We need to reduce spending that is misguided and misallocated. Everyone wants to spend money, but the issue is will it achieve what you what it to achieve? Are there other ways to accomplish what you want without spending or spending as much? These are questions that are very rarely asked in government, but are asked every day in business. I think California could use a good dose of that kind of business questioning.
S/P: In terms of lowering the cost of living in the state, housing costs are the largest part of this. What are your proposals here?
Cox: Housing is the single biggest item in any household budget. It is shocking to see what is happening in Los Angeles County, and a vast number of people in California are paying 50% of their income in housing costs. Through the r33est of the country, the number is like 20% to 30% of a household budget.
What does this mean? This means that the cost of everything else is driven up. The cost of health care is driven up. Why? Nurses have to get paid. Doctors have to get paid. Orderly have to get paid so much more because of housing costs. This creates a wage-cost spiral, which is exactly what is going on in California.
A great deal of that goes back to housing. I have a background in housing going on 40 years. I can see what the costs are in California and the costs outside of California. We have to do something about CEQA – the California Environmental Quality Act. That is A Number 1. That’s probably the easiest, low-hanging fruit. There are also mandates and layers of regulation and approvals, and impact fees that need changing. The legislature has been working on zoning reforms. There are some good ideas and bad ideas there. It has to be a holistic approach aimed at reducing the cost of building. First day I am in office, I am going to call a special session and get this going because it is urgent.
S/P: It has been five months since the deadly Jan. 6 riot in D.C. Where were you when you heard what was happening, and what were your thoughts about the state of our democracy?
Cox: I am a news junkie. I was in my office in my home in Sand Diego watching in real time, and it was not fun to watch. It is fine to demonstrate, and 2020 was a year of demonstration as we know. It wasn’t just in Washington, D.C. It was Portland. It was Chicago. My own daughters even went out and helped storekeepers in Chicago clean up broken glass.
It was not fun to watch it happen at the U.S. Capitol. I certainly think anybody who broke into the U.S. Capitol should be prosecuted and that should be the end of it. What we shouldn’t be doing is make every aspect of our political life revolve around it and have it used as a political cudgel. I also hope you and the rest of the media don’t fall prey to Mr. Newsom trying to change the subject from the problems of California and try to make everything about the past administration in D.C.
If I were Gavin Newsom, I guess I’d try to shift the subject too. He can’t defend anything – and I mean that sincerely, anything – that is going on in California. Water, fires, electricity, crime, education, housing, homelessness. We have great weather and great natural beauty, but the ability to live in this wonderful state if you are not a billionaire is pretty tough. I’m running to fix these problems that are making the middle class and a lot of other people thinking about moving out of the state.
S/P: But it’s not just Democrats who bring up the 2020 elections. Nine California Congressional candidates whom the state Republican Party endorsed last year have an active federal complaint claiming they were defrauded by the State of California due to voting machines, vote-by-mail, and vast tampering with election results. Do you support these claims? And do you have any doubts that this recall election will be administered properly?
Cox: That’s a big issue that frankly I will issue address. When I am elected governor, one of my jobs is to make sure that elections are run not just free of fraud but in a fashion that people can have confidence when I say they are free from fraud. In South Korea, as I understand it, they had a national election in April 2020. Now they could have done what California did and mail out ballots to people all over . But they pointedly did not do that. They conducted their election pretty much all in person with some limited absentee balloting.
I would also point you to Europe where most countries don’t allow absentee balloting. By the way, most countries in Europe require voter ID. I don’t hear about a bunch of demonstrations in Europe saying that people are being disenfranchised because they have to get an ID. They obviously make the IDs readily available and easy to get.
So part of leadership is making sure people believe you and making sure that the appearances are as important as the actual execution.
(Editor’s note: South Korea’s 51 million population is comparable to California’s 40 million. But South Korea’s April 15, 2020 election came early in the pandemic when that country had reported 229 Covid deaths to that point. South Korea also had one of the world’s most aggressive masking, testing and quarantining programs. By comparison, 17,752 Californians had died by the Nov. 3 election and 220,000 overall in the U.S.
Also, while most European countries do not offer mail-in voting, the majority of Europe’s seven largest democracies do: Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Poland. When their populations plus Switzerland and a few other mail-in-voting countries are combined, this equals about 245 million, or 41% of Europe, not including Russia.)
S/P: There may always be appearances of fraud to some, but are you saying vote-by-mail is inherently fraud producing and people shouldn’t trust it?
Cox: I think it is problematic, especially a state the size of California. I know people like to compare us to Oregon. But how many people are in Oregon? They have [one-tenth] of the population of California. So I don’t think it is comparable. Does voter fraud happen? I come from Chicago. My first election that I worked in was, I think, 1977. I went into the polling place at six in the morning when it had just opened, and there were already 200 votes on the machine.
So I think there are enough instances that I saw in Chicago that I think it’s pretty clear. Now is it enough that it changes the outcome, who knows. But the point of the matter is why not do things that instill confidence? To me, if voter ID can be done in a way that doesn’t disenfranchise people, let’s do it. If a decent number of people feel mailing out ballots willy-nilly is a potential for fraud even if it doesn’t happen, then it’s worth it to make sure everybody whom we can make comfortable is comfortable.
S/P: Are there limits to what California should do to address complaints. Some say we can’t trust the Dominion and Smartmatic voting systems we already have. Do we need to go to the expense to replace all of those?
Cox: Listen, I take all this with a grain of salt. I’m not going to go into what happened in the last election. All I’m only going to say is with greater transparency with these machines, with our processes and better people, you get greater confidence. I am all about transparency. There shouldn’t be any black boxes or any lack of transparency. You run into these kinds of issues when discussions about the machines is suppressed and things are kept secret. I am all about transparency.
S/P: Let me return to part of my original question. When the recall election happens, are you currently confident it will be administered properly? Or do you have concerns?
Cox: Voters in California are focused on the problems created by Gavin Newsom’s failed leadership. Kids not learning. Businesses closed. Millions unemployed. Wildfires and energy blackouts throughout the summer. Those are the issues I’d spend my time on.
S/P: Another top issue listed on your Web site is to “be a beast on homelessness and address root causes.” What specific policies would you push?
Cox: My whole direction is quality of life in this state. We talked about cost of living. We talked about housing. I also mentioned water, electricity, the fires and those kinds of things. Let’s face it, these are all threats that erode our quality of life. Well, homelessness is one that is right in our faces everywhere in California. You see the blight everywhere. I was just in Santa Barbara and there were all sorts of people pitching tents in the park. But you know what, the parks exist to be enjoyed by everybody, not just someone who decides to make it their residence.
The way our system should work is that you get a job, you work, you pay for rent, you pay for a house. If you can’t afford to pay for those things, I certainly support a safety net that would allow you to have a voucher. I think housing voucher programs are certainly wonderful and should be available to people. But letting people just pitch a tent on the streets or in a park is not what an orderly society does. And it hurts the quality of life for everyone else when you can’t walk the sidewalks or use the public parks or use the beachfront like in Venice Beach. That is a world-famous tourist attraction. It has been destroyed by this epidemic of people just pitching tents wherever they want. So I am going to act on this immediately upon becoming governor.
The big thing that is going to mark me versus to Mr. Newsom or, frankly, one of my Republican opponents [Kevin Faulconer] is that I am not going to just buy hotels and stick homeless people in them. “Housing first” has failed. It doesn’t work, and it can’t work. The vast majority of homeless people have either a mental illness or an addiction. If people want to be addicted to a substance, go ahead and do it in the privacy of your own home. But you are not going to pitch a tent on a sidewalk and panhandle or go in a hotel and shoot up at the government’s expense.
My credo is “treatment first.” We’ve got to partner with private organizations. I don’t believe in creating government-run mental hospitals like we had in the ’60s. Those I think proved a failure. But there are plenty of excellent programs in the private sector – secular and non-secular – that I think government can partner with to provide the treatment, the job training and counseling to get people back on their feet, off drugs, and back into the work force.
S/P: Anything else you would like to add?
Cox: What I ask anyone reading this to think about is what are we going to do about quality of life in this state that has been degraded for so many people. I emphasize for the middle class because they seem to have been squeezed for the longest. Decades really. It was interesting to me that Mr. Newson’s plan to hand out money focused on people making less than $75,000 a year. Certainly many of them have been hurt in the shutdown. But the middle class has been getting squeezed in California for literally decades as costs have gone up.
California used to be a place you could send your kid to a high-quality, in-state university at a reasonable cost. Today it’s primarily out-of-state students, and costs have just gone through the roof. People have to go in debt. It’s that way with so many other things. Housing, electricity, gasoline. I saw gasoline at $5 a gallon in Los Angeles the other day. A lot of these costs are being driven up by excessive taxes and regulations. When you have to deal with regulations and lawsuits and bureaucratic actions, those costs end up in the price.
That is why the dam finally broke and we lost population last year. I think that is going to continue to happen. We have to make it so that people who aren’t wealthy can afford to live to California and have a quality life.