SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Democrat Kevin Paffrath shook up the recall debate stage Wednesday in his first appearance alongside three Republican rivals, accusing them of lacking bold plans and pitching himself as the best option to lead California should voters remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office.
“A vote for any Republican, including the ones who are not here, is a wasted vote,” the 29-year-old YouTube creator said.
He was the only Democrat on stage alongside former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and businessman John Cox, all Republicans who had debated each other three times before. Save for one sharp exchange with Faulconer, the three largely avoided engaging with Paffrath — including his ending request for them to drop out of the race and endorse him — and kept their messaging trained on Newsom's failures.
“It’s not the time for the on-the-job-training, for YouTube, somebody that's never actually had to get legislation across," Faulconer quipped after Paffrath brought up botched real estate deals in San Diego during Faulconer's time as mayor.
The debate was also notable for who wasn't on stage: Talk radio host Larry Elder, who is widely considered the frontrunner to replace Newsom among Republicans. Both Paffrath and Faulconer underscored his status atop the field by directly urging voters not to support him. Elder has declined to debate his rivals, saying he'll only go toe-to-toe with Newsom.
“We have a big threat, and that threat isn't here to defend himself: It's Larry Elder," Paffrath said, accusing Elder of sharing disinformation in appearances on Fox News. He didn't provide specific examples.
Faulconer again slammed Elder for his past comments about women in the workplace. Elder recently denied allegations he displayed a gun in front of an ex-fiancee, and the allegations haven't seemed to noticeably dampen his standing in the race.
News station KCRA and the San Francisco Chronicle hosted the televised debate. It came less than three weeks before the last day to vote, Sept. 14.
All registered California voters — more than 22 million people — received ballots in the mail and more than 1.5 million people have already voted, according to ballot tracking data from Political Data Inc. Voters are asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled and, if so, who should replace him? There are 46 replacement candidates, though Republican Doug Ose dropped out after ballots were printed and endorsed Kiley.
Newsom and his Democratic party allies kept another well-known, elected Democrat from running on the second question in an effort to keep the party unified behind the governor. They are urging Democrats to vote no on the recall and forgo the choice for a replacement option. But Paffrath's presence on the debate stage could complicate that message. With his nearly 1.7 million YouTube subscribers, to whom he gives financial advice, he's the best known among the nine Democrats running.
If a majority of voters choose to remove Newsom, the replacement candidate with the most votes will become governor, even if they fall far short of a majority.
Paffrath's lack of political experience flashed briefly when he referred to the state Legislature as “Congress." He was arguing that he's best poised to make progress in Sacramento because Democrats hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature.
He also shared some unique and far-fetched ideas, including a proposal for California to construct a pipeline to carry water from the Mississippi to the Colorado River to boost California's water supply.
On the coronavirus, he agreed with his Republican rivals that the state shouldn't mandate vaccines. But he was the only candidate to give a clear answer when asked what he would do to stop the spread of the virus; he proposed installing better air filtration systems in schools and public buildings and said the state would provide N95 face masks to anyone who can't afford one.
“What we’ve just heard from the other three candidates on the stage — and what you hear from the other candidates who are too afraid to be here tonight to stand in front of California people — is nothing about ventilation and new ideas. It’s more of the same, and that’s why we’re failing with COVID," he said.
The Republicans largely stuck to their familiar talking points, blasting Newsom for overreaching on the coronavirus and pledging to build more water storage, better manage the state's forests and cut taxes.
Kiley at one point said Paffrath's presence on stage disproved Newsom's characterization of the recall as a Republican effort.
“I want to thank (Paffrath) for underlining something that is abundantly clear to everyone except Gavin Newsom, which is that this is not a partisan recall," Kiley said. “This has been bipartisan and multipartisan from the beginning, it’s about the failures of our government to do the most basic things."
The Democratic governor has painted the recall as a movement driven by GOP extremists and supporters of former President Donald Trump. Republican activists led the drive to place the recall on the ballot, but it is not solely supported by Republicans.
On wildfires, all four candidates said they would not restrict housing construction in areas at high-risk for fire. All four spoke out against the “defund the police" movement and none committed to signing legislation in the works to create a statewide process to strip law enforcement who break the law of their badges. California is one of a few states without a process.