Calif. governor’s race: John Cox interview

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Republican John Cox is a businessman originally from Chicago. He’s only lived in California for about a decade, but that hasn’t kept him from surging in recent polls — or from getting the backing of President Donald Trump in the race to be the state’s next governor. Cox explains why he wants to end the state’s new sanctuary law, his opposition to the new gas tax and why he thinks a Republican could win in a deep blue state.

KCRW: Great for you to come into the studio. Thanks for being here. So people are now just tuning in, really, paying attention now to the governor’s race and probably a lot of our listeners have no idea who you are. Who are you?

JC: I’m a businessman. I grew up in Chicago. Moved to California about 10 years ago following the rest of my family and my mom was a Chicago public school teacher. She retired to Fresno in 1980. My grandparents actually moved here in 1968. So basically all three of their daughters ended up living in California most their lives. And I finally moved out here to join the rest of my family. And it took you so long I had to save up enough money to buy a house out here pretty expensive. That’s one of the reasons I’m running, Madeleine.

KCRW: Well I was gonna ask you that was my second question. Why do you think with only 10 years in the state under your belt you think you’re qualified to run for the state’s highest office.

JC: I’ve been following California for a long much longer than that. But the big issue here is the unaffordability of the state that the people of the state cannot afford their house they can’t afford their gasoline their water the electricity. The state is being mismanaged in epic fashion by the people in charge. They’re politicians, they basically turn over government to the special interests in Sacramento. I want to do something about that. I’ve been managing businesses my whole life. I started my own business when I was 24 years old, with nothing basically, and I built it into a $200 million business that is very successful.

KCRW: And what is that business?

JC: Real estate, I build and manage apartments and do a very good job with that quality, efficiency.

KCRW: So you’re an expert in real estate. How is it that we’re going to get people developers to build millions more units every year?

JC: We’ve got to streamline regulation. I’ve talked to so many builders here who told me that the cost of regulation the litigation the impact fees that delay it takes it takes eight to 10 years to get a project approved. Very few people want to do it and I’m in the apartment business, I build apartments in Indiana for $80,000 a unit. They rent their wonderful apartments for $800 to $1000 a month. Brand new ones.

KCRW: That is Indiana. So I would say cheaper to build out there.

JC: No it is not cheaper to build. The land is less expensive, I’ll grant you that. But the building costs are not that much less expensive – it’s the cost of government. And that’s my point. I mean in California the cost to build is driven up by government regulation and red tape and approvals and environmental lawsuits a whole host of things that

KCRW: Well, let’s talk about the environmental issue. You are saying that you want to get rid of the state’s environmental law SEQUA.

JC: I want to see get rid of it and replace it with something that works a lot better. I certainly want to benefit the environment. I certainly want clean air. I first came to California in 1968 and I could barely see skyscrapers in Los Angeles, because the smog. We obviously have done a lot to clean the air. And I think we need to do a lot more. But we’ve got to balance the needs of the environment, which of course we need to keep clean, with allowing people to live in and afford their lifestyle. I mean it does no good if people are just struck with the tremendous cost in order to try to live in the state.

KCRW: But aside from the regulations and the red tape that you describe that make it difficult to build a lot quickly, there are also local considerations and a lot of localities simply don’t want to build more within their boundaries. So how would you get beyond local opposition to say, ‘look you know this is a statewide problem we need a lot more housing to drive down the costs and you’ve got to build more housing?’

JC: Well I think we do and of course there was a bill that was introduced that would have created statewide exemptions for people to build. And I think that’s wrong too. I think what we could do is exercise leadership. You know I am in the real estate business and when I’m the governor of this state I’ll exercise leadership to try to incentivize local authorities to produce more housing.

KCRW: And how would you do that?

JC: Well I’m a Jack Kemp Republican. I believe in incentives. I think incentives work. And so I would try to do is work with experts to incentivize, create areas and work with local authorities to create areas where certain kinds of housing would be built. And maybe work with building transportation projects that could help serve those private properties as well. Again, I don’t want to see things forced by state government. I don’t want to see a top down, one size fits all policy, I certainly want local control, but I think there can be a lot of things that are done at the at the leadership level that would allow more building to be done and less expensively. I mean I don’t think we can keep escalating the cost for people. People are telling me they’re working two and three jobs to try to afford a house in this state. It’s wrecking havoc with business budgets as well as government budgets. Think about it – we’re paying people far bigger salaries to live in California because the cost of housing is so high and that’s driving up taxes, it’s driving up the cost of doing business which is why a lot of businesses are leaving the state.

KCRW: This state is also the world’s fifth largest economy. And there are a lot of businesses who like it just fine here. Google, Facebook, Apple lots of huge multinational corporations located right here in California. So how can you say that businesses are fleeing the state?

JC: You just named three that are obviously some of the most successful companies in the world. But there’s a lot of smaller much smaller businesses that are not having a go of it and are leaving the state.

KCRW: Let’s talk about immigration. And you are a supporter of the president’s plan to build a border wall?

JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s all about security, Madeleine. I mean the first rule of is to protect the people. I’ve been down the border. I have friends in Tucson who told me that guns and drug traffickers and human traffickers are still coming across the border.

KCRW: But even John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, has said that most people who come across the border quote unquote illegally are not lawbreakers. They’re just looking for a better life. That is to make a living.

JC: Yeah they are. But that doesn’t vitiate the idea that even a few people who come across to do bad things or to carry guns or to carry drugs is a bad thing – just because a large percentage of them are really good people doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t guard ourselves against people who are looking to do us harm. I tell you what MS13 the gang is a real threat and there’s more and more statistics that they’ve permeated a lot of our big cities and are wreaking havoc with a lot of families who want to live in peace.

KCRW: Well they’re a very big threat to people who are fleeing them from El Salvador and trying to come here and try to actually live.

JC: But you know that’s El Salvador’s problem. I mean we don’t do them any favors by taking. Are we going to empty out those countries in Central America and housed them all here. I think those people ought to get their government in order and deal with their problems themselves.

KCRW: However crime rates, although they’ve edged up recently, they’re still dramatically lower than they were in the ’80s.

JC: The economy is good. I mean you know the crime rate goes down when the economy is recovering and people have jobs.

KCRW: It was pretty low during the recession.

JC: Not so much. But I tell you what, in Los Angeles lies in Los Angeles now the crime rate is going up substantially. And you know you can tell that to the family of Anthony Mele who was sitting in a restaurant in Ventura holding his five year old daughter on his lap when a homeless person came up and sliced his neck and killed him. You know, even one murder like this is horrendous.

KCRW: What does that have to do with immigration?

JC: Well doesn’t it. But it’s a crime. You and I talked about crime. And I think people are still worried about crime in their communities. If you talk about crime in San Francisco a significant number of break-ins of cars are occurring on the street

KCRW: I guess. No I was actually referring to the border wall and then you’re saying that that would prevent crime and…

JC: And we’ve shifted to talking about crime in general. But you know listen again the border wall is all about securing us from drugs and guns and MS13 and human trafficking again. I mean if it’s a small number I think the job of government is protect us. I don’t see why a border wall is all a bad idea. You know remember we have a totally unprotected border with Canada pretty much and we don’t worry about too much.

KCRW: There’s no call for a wall up there. Do you think there should be?

JC: No because Canada is a pretty well run nation that has control of its own population. That’s not the case in Mexico. There are 2,800 murders in Mexico last year. You apply that to the U.S. with our population you’re talking about almost a 100,000 murders. Can you imagine if we had 100,000 murders in this country – people would be up in arms. No we have a problem to our southern border because we have a government down in that country that is mismanaging its people and is not dealing with the criminal conspiracies and the drug trade down there. And I don’t want to see that move North America.

KCRW: OK. Your big issue also seems to be repealing the gas tax. Is that correct?

JC: It is, the cost of living here is outrageous.

KCRW: OK and so that might be on the ballot in November?

JC: It will be on the ballot. We collected a million signatures almost. And you know people were chasing the signature gatherers to sign this thing. You know why the problem? Because Caltrans spends four times what Texas does to build a mile of road. Think about that for a second.

KCRW: Is this because of environmental regulation?

JC: No. It’s because of corruption. It’s because of waste. It’s because very few politicians in Sacramento have an incentive to say anything about the overstaffing and the inefficiencies in our government. That’s what a businessman does. I look for inefficiencies all throughout my business whenever I can because the bottom line is it’s my money that’s being wasted. Well that’s the way I’m going to operate in government here because there’s a lot of money being wasted and the taxpayers are paying for it.

KCRW: Are you saying that Jerry Brown has mismanaged the economy?

JC: Absolutely.

KCRW: There was an $8 billion surplus.

JC: Just because we’re generating a lot of revenue it doesn’t mean he’s not wasting money and spending it excessively. We have increased education spending 80 percent in the last seven years. We’re now spending $76 billion a year on education and the results, the performance, has been miserable. We are now something like 48th in the country in terms of educational scores. Los Angeles last year and I got this from a Democratic group issued more suspensions than diplomas. We are failing the vulnerable among us. I want to see teachers get paid. I want to see teachers paid like rock stars and baseball players based on how well they do, merit.

KCRW: But California is near the bottom. It might be even 49th in per pupil spending.

JC: I’ve looked at that by the way and you have to look at the total dollars that are being spent. There’s a lot of games that are played with that because money comes from the state and also money comes from local tax revenue. So I’ve seen other studies that show that California is pretty much up there near the top in terms of per pupil spending.

KCRW: Well regardless, the head of the LAUSD here, this is the nation’s second largest school district, says he needs more money and he’s going to go to Sacramento.

JC: They always need more money

KCRW: Would you give him more money?

JC: The issue is how you’re spending the money. I want to cut administrative costs. I want to get the money into the classroom. I want to get it to the teachers. I want to get rid of tenure as well. I don’t have tenure in my business. I want to be able to get rid of teachers that aren’t performing.

KCRW: You have come out in favor of keeping Proposition 13 and you’ve said in your ads that you want the tax rates that people have – their property tax rates to be portable. Is that correct that if you sold your house and moved to another house you would keep the same property tax.

JC: Yeah and my opponents are all for emasculating Prop 13. They want to do away with it obviously because they want revenue.

KCRW: How would that work? How would that work in terms of keeping state revenue?

JC: What for the first thing you would do is we’d be able to have more velocity. A lot of people are staying in their homes. There is an exemption over 55. But there’s a lot of people under 55 who are staying in their homes because they can’t afford to sell, because they sell and buy another home they’re going to get hit with a huge property tax bill. And of course that distorts the real estate market and keeps prices higher than they normally should be. So I think that’s the issue that I was arriving at there.

But you know, this state doesn’t have a revenue problem it has a spending problem. The revenue of the state under Jerry Brown has gone from $80 billion a year to $140 billion general fund. That’s a huge increase. You’re talking about a 70 – 80 percent increase in the revenue of the state in just the last seven years. Thank god we have an economy that’s doing that. But that’s more money out of the pockets of hardworking Californians that could be in their pockets to save for retirement and save for college education and doing a lot of other things. And what does Jerry Brown and the legislature done? They’ve spent that money, they’ve got boondoggle after boondoggle, waste after waste. This state, Madeleine, last year spent $6 billion on overtime for state employees. Now in my business I make sure people don’t work overtime because that’s time and a half. That’s double time that’s paying them more than you bargained for. That’s waste.

KCRW: Do you believe in paid family leave?

JC: I think there’s this idea of a business of business can afford to pay its employees family a paid family leave. I’m all for it.

KCRW: Do you think there should be a state law mandating it?

JC: No. I think we have way too many mandates. I think businesses should be allowed to decide that they want to keep employees. I pay my employees. I give them a certain amount of paid leave.

KCRW: How much?

JC: I don’t recall now. But it’s some number of weeks.

KCRW: Both men and women

JC: yes.

KCRW: Do you believe in human caused climate change?

JC:I believe that the climate is changing. I believe that humans probably have some impact on it. I’m not at all convinced that it’s all caused by humans. I’m not at all convinced that it is something that is not beneficial in some areas. It may well be beneficial. What I think we ought to do is clean the air clean the water. I think we ought to do it in a way that that weighs the benefits versus the risks.

KCRW: How do you do that without regulation?

JC: Well I think well I think we ought to apply a holistic approach to it. The forest fires last year dumped more carbon in the year than all the cars in California for the full year. Now how stupid is it to raise the price of gasoline where middle class families can’t operate at the same time we ignored the management of the forests. We don’t thin the force. We don’t build roads into them to allow equipment to get in there and then we have a huge number of forest fires like we did last year dumping huge amounts of carbon, excuse the expression but our politicians are missing the forest for the trees.

KCRW: Someone said one of the big problems is building too close to these forests that we have unbridled growth and it’s too dangerous for humans too build communities near these places.

JC: Well it means that we should have a little bit more logging. And I think that’s fine, you know trees are a renewable resource. They actually grow, as you know they so and logging companies are the ones who are most responsible that they want to make sure that they plant new forests and because they want to know 30, 40 years from now that they’ve got trees to harvest so I think one of the big problems in California too is restricting logging.

KCRW: As you well know this is a largely Democratic state. We have a Democratic governor. Both of our senators are Democrats. The legislature is controlled by Democrats. California went over 60 percent for Hillary Clinton. Even San Diego and Orange Counties. So how do you think you’re going to win in this state as a Republican?

JC: Well we’ve had Republican governors Reagan, Deukmejian who just passed. Wilson Schwarzenegger was elected as a Republican. I think people are looking for a balance to this legislature. I think they’re looking for somebody who is going to manage the state better. If you look at it, it’s been very difficult for a Democrat to succeed another Democrat after eight years, because I think people want change and they want better management. And I think that’s why they’ll look to make a change in 2018.

KCRW:Even Donald Trump supporting Republican?

JC: Well I support what the president’s been doing cutting taxes coming regulations staying up to North Korea and Iran. I have a different personality. I think a lot of it is based upon personality people maybe just don’t like the way he talks or something like that. But I like what he’s done. I think this economy is going to break 3 percent this year. We’re cutting regulations we’re getting people back to work. Black unemployment is at an all time low. Hispanic unemployment is way low. I think those are good things don’t you.

(Photo: John Cox at KCRW, by Amy Ta)