Who is John Cox and what would he do as governor?

By Ben Christopher

Imagine a California governor who rolls back today’s mask and vaccine mandates, actively campaigns against Democrats in the Legislature who block his policies, and makes the expansion of oil and gas exploration the cornerstone of California’s climate change policy.

Things would certainly be different under a Gov. John Cox

That is, if voters decide Sept. 14 to remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and if Cox wins the most votes among 46 replacement candidates.

In a 90-minute interview with CalMatters reporters and editors, the Republican businessperson drew sharp contrasts with Newsom; spoke about his plans to upend state policy on taxes, homelessness, healthcare and education; and explained — he hopes for the last time — why he took to the campaign trail with a Kodiak bear

CalMatters has invited Newsom and his major challengers to sit down and chat. Here are five highlights from the discussion with Cox:

‘It’s not Ebola, it’s not the smallpox’

In the face of the surging coronavirus delta variant, the Newsom administration has reintroduced a statewide indoor mask recommendation and compelled health care workersteachers and state employees to get vaccinated or get tested regularly.

That’s all a little much for Cox. He pushed back against what he calls “hysteria” over a virus that is likely to be with us indefinitely. And now that vaccines are easily available, Cox said Californians should have the freedom to choose whether they want to protect themselves with masks and vaccines — or not. 

“If I’m vaccinated — which I am — do I really care if someone is unvaccinated?” he asked.

Public health experts still strongly recommend that everyone who is eligible to get the jab do so. That’s to protect children and those with compromised immune systems and to reduce the likelihood that local health care systems will be overwhelmed with patients as they currently are in TexasLouisiana and Florida

Video produced by Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters. 

‘The streets, the beaches and the parks are for everybody’

Cox said California’s chronic homelessness problem is fundamentally a mental health and addiction issue. One of his first priorities as governor, he said, would be to change state law to make it easier to place people living on the street into conservatorships — an arrangement in which a person’s legal and financial affairs are entrusted to someone else. 

Compelling people to receive treatment and housing, he said, should be accompanied with stricter enforcement of anti-camping laws. “They don’t have to live on the street,” he said of unhoused Californians. “They can go and live in the mountains.”

Cox said he would call a special session of the Legislature solely to tackle housing costs and homelessness. Other policy changes he’d like to see include stripping down a state environmental quality law that is often used to block new development, and reducing delays and fees imposed on developers by local governments. But zoning, he said, should remain the purview of local government.

‘A lot of advantages to developing natural gas and oil’

For decades, California has stood out for its aggressive policies on climate change. That’s included capping greenhouse gas emissions statewide, loading up our electricity portfolio with renewables and phasing out the use of gas-powered cars

Cox has a different idea: Rather than focus on its own carbon footprint, California should do what it can to reduce emissions in industrial powerhouses China and India. And the best way to do that, he said, would be to export liquified natural gas across the Pacific, providing those countries with a cleaner alternative to coal.

“We ought to be talking about what we can do to fix global pollution, not just make symbolic gestures,” he said.

‘I’ll have to go around them and get other people elected’

It’s not lost on Cox that no matter what happens, California’s Legislature will remain in firm Democratic hands. 

What’s a conservative Republican governor to do? Cox said he would first try to persuade legislators to back his policy agenda by appealing to their “common sense.” But if that fails he has a Plan B: hit the campaign trail next year and while running for re-election, urge voters to boot the hold-outs out of office in 2022.

‘Oh yeah, you’re the guy with the bear!’

It’s fair to say that Cox is sick of taking questions about the Tag the Kodiak. Yes, it was a stunt to get people to pay attention. And no, Cox said, it’s not “beneath me to parade around with a bear.” 

He recalled talking to a hotel valet in Santa Barbara who evidently had no idea who he was — until Cox mentioned the bear. 

“So if that’s needed to reach the voters who should have a say, but who don’t have the time or the inclination to pay attention to politics, I’m all for it,” he said. But for all the attention that Tag has received, he added, “the bear didn’t talk. I talked.”