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Who is Kevin Kiley and what would he do as governor?

The state assemblymember explains why he won’t criticize Republicans, blames Gov. Newsom for COVID deaths and says a successful recall could change everything.
Credit: Photo by Pablo Unzueta
Assemblymember Kevin Kiley receives praise from his supporters after giving a speech during a recall campaign rally in Culver City, on July 31, 2021.

CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.

With just three weeks until California’s Sept. 14 recall election, some of the top candidates are starting to scuffle. Not Kevin Kiley.

The Republican Assemblymember from the ‘burbs east of Sacramento says he only has one target: Gov. Gavin Newsom. In a 70-minute discussion with CalMatters editors and reporters, he hammered the governor on education, homelessness and the state’s vaccine rollout while also making his case — delicately and without naming any names — why he would make the best replacement.  

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

‘My focus is entirely on…Gavin Newsom’ 

Kiley didn’t bite when given an opportunity to critique his fellow Republicans: “I do not think it’s productive to draw contrasts with other replacement candidates.”

If the recall is successful, he said, the top vote-getter will be the person perceived to be the least like Newsom.

“Whoever shows that they would sort of do the opposite of whatever Gavin Newsom has done…I think that’s the person that voters will ultimately choose,” he said.

After last week’s allegations against Larry Elder, both former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner called on the poll leader to exit the race. John Cox, the millionaire from Rancho Santa Fe, has also directed a few barbs Elder’s way.

Kiley has taken a different approach, scolding his fellow Republicans for calling on Elder to drop out and declining to criticize Elder’s prior statements about women. “I’m not really in a position to comment,” he said.

While most of the Republican candidates have reserved their sharpest criticism of Newsom for his many pandemic restrictions, Kiley also took issue with the state’s slow early rollout of the vaccine in the first months of this year.

“We had hundreds of people dying every day, and the governor didn’t prioritize seniors,” Kiley said. “And then when we did make them eligible, it was just a complete mess.”

Though the Newsom administration made Californians aged 65 and older eligible for the vaccine in mid-January, health care workers and nursing home residents came first.

Now that there is more than enough vaccine supply to go around, Kiley, like his competitors, opposes inoculation mandates. In April, he introduced legislation that would have banned local and state governments from introducing such requirements. It went nowhere. But under a Kiley administration, “bodily autonomy will be respected,” he said. 

‘Education establishment…is unwilling to serve students’

Another area where Kiley agrees with other Republicans on the ballot: California’s public school system is broken, teachers’ unions are to blame and the best solution is to give parents more choice. 

In practice, Kiley said, that would mean giving families the ability to send their children to a charter school or even a private school, funded with public dollars. 

“Gavin Newsom came into office and his top priority was simply to reward his top campaign donor, the California Teachers Association,” Kiley said. “We’ve seen that the education establishment in California is unwilling to serve students, and so I think we need a paradigmatic shift.”

‘It’s not going to make a difference’

This year, Newsom and the Legislature set aside $12 billion to help the state tackle one of its  most persistent problems: Homelessness and the cost of housing.  

Kiley is not impressed. “We have thrown more and more money at homelessness with no positive impact,” he said. “Other states are not having the problem like we are, and so we can look at what’s worked elsewhere and we can do the same thing here.”

That line of argument — that the state’s biggest crises don’t warrant more spending, but smarter spending — is a consistent critique of Kiley’s. But aside from calling for superior leadership and better oversight, Kiley’s proposals to get unhoused people into shelters and more permanent housing are not dramatically different from current policy. 

‘I know where the power resides’ 

If there’s one thing that distinguishes Kiley from his Republican rivals, it’s his resume. Unlike Elder and Cox, who proudly describe themselves as outsiders, or Faulconer, whose governing experience comes from local politics, Kiley has served in the state Assembly since 2017.

“I know the ways that legislators try to stop good legislation while avoiding accountability, I know the tricks that are used to change bills into something that they weren’t before,” he said.

But understanding the governing process is one thing. Getting things done with a Legislature where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three-to-one is another.

Kiley said a successful recall could do wonders to get the Legislature’s bipartisan juices flowing.

“One thing that legislators are wary of is losing their job,” he noted. “If they’ve just seen that even the governor has lost his job, then I think that will create an entirely new environment.”