Who is Larry Elder and what would he do as governor?

By Ben Christopher

“The Sage from South Central.” “Even more extreme than Trump.” The recall candidate to beat.

Larry Elder goes by a lot of labels these days. If he’s tough to pin down, that’s because he’s such an unlikely character: A Black man who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, went to an Ivy League college and became a conservative provocateur. 

In a state dominated by Democrats for 15 years, he’d make an even more unlikely governor. As millions of Californains suss out what they’re supposed to think about him as they vote in the Sept. 14 recall election, Elder sat down with CalMatters reporters and editors for an hour-long interview.

This conversation took place before Politico reported Thursday on allegations from Elder’s ex-fiancee that he brandished a gun at her while high on marijuana. Elder denied that he waved a weapon, but did not respond to other allegations: “I am not going to dignify this with a response — it’s beneath me.”

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

‘I don’t have horns. I don’t have a tail.’

Elder is especially clear on this point: He thinks he’s gotten a raw deal from the “left-wing media” since he announced his campaign last month.

“I don’t have a tail, I don’t have horns,” he said, before noting that he also doesn’t “club baby seals and eat their heads.” While his views on labor policygender equality and race have been characterized by the Newsom camp and even some fellow Republicans as extreme, Elder says they’re rooted in common sense and Economics 101.

In the latest in a string of stories unearthing past controversial comments, both CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle published articles Thursday documenting what he has said about women.

He also mentioned that he’s written books and made documentaries. Despite their commercial success, he claims, they’ve been skimmed over by the arbiters of merit and taste — newspaper book reviewers and the Oscars.

“It’s just surprising that I’ve been shut out like this,” he said. “I’m from the ‘hood. I ought to be a success story.”

Not that depicting himself as a media target and picking fights with fault-finding reporters doesn’t have its political upside. Just ask Donald Trump. For Elder’s supporters and many recall voters, the disapproval of the chattering classes may serve as its own endorsement. 

Video produced by Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters. 

‘I am a small-L libertarian’

That’s the term Elder uses to describe his policy platform. It’s a consistent line and one that he’s been repeating for as long as he’s been a public figure. 

“The biggest challenge in California in general is the intrusiveness of government,” he said. “I believe that a government that governs less governs best.”

Hence his views on the minimum wage (there shouldn’t be one), pregnancy discrimination prohibitions in the workplace (leave it to the market), public welfare programs (it encourages “women to marry the government”), public schools (he prefers school vouchers), state-funded health insurance programs (“you need to have competition”) and recreational drugs (he supports legalization).

‘The only person I want to debate is Gavin Newsom’

Longtime conservative talk radio listeners and Fox News aficionados will know Elder by his more than 20 years of public opinionating. But for many California voters, he remains relatively unknown.

That’s in part Elder’s doing. He’s skipped three campaign debates so far, a strategy that’s frustrated some GOP insiders. Elder insists it’s because he’s “not running against the Republican rivals,” but against Newsom.

But debating also runs the risk of making a gaffe or coming under sustained attack — a risk that Elder apparently doesn’t believe he needs to make.

“I have a substantial lead over my Republican rivals, that’s one of the reasons why they want to debate me,” he said. “If I were sitting at 2% in the polls, I’d want to debate me as well.”

‘The term is illegal alien’

Elder’s years in the media world have given him a knack for talking politics in a way to draw an audience, but also sometimes to inflame.

So, yes, he opposes the California’s recent expansion of Medi-Cal, the public health insurance program for low-income people, to undocumented immigrants. And no, he’s not going to use the term “undocumented immigrant.” 

Likewise, climate change activists and conservationists are “environmental extremists,” the reformist district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco are “soft on crime” and safety net programs pushed by Democrats represent “an attack on the nuclear family.”

‘Somebody like Clarence Thomas’

One of a governor’s most powerful policy levers is his ability to appoint — to the judicial bench, to vacated constitutional offices and to the state’s many regulatory commissions.

While Elder doesn’t have a short list of names for any of those possible appointments, he takes inspiration from Washington, D.C. When selecting a judge or justice, he would model his selection on self-described originalists like Thomas and the late-Antonin Scalia. 

And for the state Board of Education? “Somebody who has the same philosophy as the former Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos,” he said. 

But there was one former D.C. bigwig Elder was not inclined to talk about: Stephen Miller, the former Trump advisor, whose early start as a right-wing provocateur began on Elder’s show.

“Why would you bring up Stephen Miller?” Elder asked, repeatedly. “I’m just wondering what the agenda here is. What’s the point? Am I somehow — what — a Nazi? A fascist?”