California's top two Republican gubernatorial candidates traded verbal jabs and burnished their conservative bonafides in front of a full house of 400 people at Tuesday evening's forum held by the Republican Party of San Luis Obispo County at Atascadero's Pavilion on the Lake.
Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and John Cox of Rancho Santa Fe are two of six candidates competing in California's June 5 primary for a spot on the ballot in November's general election.
Cox, an Illinois native, is a perennial candidate for office, including one run for president of the United States. A businessman, accountant and attorney, his campaign is centered on a fight against corruption. He also believes the state needs to overhaul its tax system.
Cox notably did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016; he said he cast his ballot for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Allen ran his own financial-planning company before entering politics in 2012, when he was elected to the state Assembly. Though he's been labeled a conservative bomb-thrower, including an incident where he falsely accused Democrats in Sacramento of legalizing child prostitution, he has crossed the aisle, including to work with Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, of Fullerton, in the past. Allen also has donated money to past campaigns of prominent Democrats, including former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and fellow gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
At the forum moderated by Central Coast Taxpayers Association president and former representative for the 22nd Congressional District Andrea Seastrand, who also writes a bi-weekly column for The Tribune, Allen and Cox both took shot at the Democratic candidates in the race — particularly Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, widely considered to be the frontrunners in the race.
Polling aggregator RealClearPolitics places Newsom and Villaraigosa ahead in most polls; in California, the top two vote-getters on June 5, regardless of party, will go on to a head-to-head election in November.
"Historically, the top two ends up being Democrats," county party chairman Randall Jordan said as the event got started.
Speaking first — because Allen was 20 minutes late to the event — Cox said his campaign's internal polling placed him at 23 percent of the vote. Through the evening, Cox reminded the audience several times that he was endorsed by former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; he also touted endorsements from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and anti-abortion group Californians for Life.
Allen didn't let Cox's conservative credentials go un-challenged; the assemblyman reminded the audience that Cox did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 but did vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Allen also brought up Cox's multiple failed political campaigns, but perhaps his most pointed allegation was when he accused Cox, who owns multiple rental properties in Illinois, of being a slumlord.
Allen directed the audience to visit governmentfinancedslumlord.com, a site that alleges Cox collects federal Section 8 money while allowing tenants to live in deplorable conditions. Cox accused Allen of blowing the story out of proportion and taking "little disgruntled people" at their word.
For his part, Allen said he gets "an A, and an A+" from the National Rifle Association, said that he would lower state taxes if elected, vowed to undo recent voter-enacted criminal justice reforms and promised to "get rid of the state-mandated Common Core and the leftist propaganda."
"I am the most conservative guy in the California Legislature," Allen said.
Cox criticized Allen's rhetoric, accusing his opponent of slander and saying they should both focus on their Democratic opponents. But Allen was relentless. He accused Cox of parroting his positions — "every single thing you've just heard, I've made a speech on" — giving money to a political action committee affiliated with billionaire political donor George Soros and being weak on crime by not supporting the death penalty. Allen is the only candidate for governor who supports capital punishment.
The two candidates agreed on several things, however.
Both Republicans pledged to end California's sanctuary policy — which prohibits state government employees from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement — on their first day in office. They also voiced support for the construction of a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico. Both men said they also would end outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown's high-speed rail project.
But the thing they agreed on the most? A sentiment shared by Jordan in his opening remarks.
"We need to get in the top two," Jordan said.
The last day to submit ballots for the California primary is June 5.