A Lieutenant Governor’s Debate in Pyongyang

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

“With Bay Area public radio apparently not providing a favorable enough platform for Mr. Newsom to debate, we’re willing to accept a forum moderated by MS-NBC’s Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz.  If MS-NBC isn’t favorable enough, we could be talked into doing it on either Russian government-funded RT television, or North Korea’s KCNA, although with that last one we can’t find a bureau for them in the United States,” – statement from campaign of Ron Nehring, challenger to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom

PYONGYANG (AP) – In a historic event, California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom debated challenger Ron Nehring in a military hall here in the North Korean capital.

North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen in public in weeks, did not attend, but the Foreign Ministry issued a statement welcoming the debate and the Cal Channel’s investment in putting on and broadcasting the debate, which represented a significant part of North Korea’s GDP for 2014.

“North Korea and its magnificent president, the son and the moon, lead the world in many categories, but no leadership is more dear to the Dear Leader than our leadership in the number of officials with important-sounding titles and no real power. We also love meaningless sideshows, which makes a lieutenant governors’ debate perfect.”

The subject matter covered by the debate extended far beyond the usual realms of California budgets and schools. Moderator Dennis Rodman of Vice Media pressed both candidates on drug laws (“In Gavin Newsom’s California, Dennis, you’ll be able to smoke what you want,” Newsom said, “though I wish you wouldn’t drive afterward”) and on law enforcement of loud coastal parties. “The cops are so on me that I pretty much have to hold all my parties to Texas, Rodman complained.

Another panelist, an unnamed reporter for the Korean Central News Agency, pressed Newsom skeptically on why he and his Democratic party tolerated the opposition of Nehring and didn’t have him executed by firing squad.

Newsom responded that the wisdom of 21t century America is to maintain the illusion of a minority party as a Potemkin village of democracy in a country full of one-party states. The lieutenant governor also said he feared that the bullets, if they went through Nehring’s body into the ground, might violate a host of California environmental laws.

The same news agency reporter also asked both men why Americans persisted in criticizing North Korea’s hereditary leadership when California seemed to labor under the same system, with a governor whose father was governor and who would win a fourth term in the face of only token competition.

Newsom and Nehring agreed that they didn’t’ have much of an answer for that.

A third panelist, who did not disclose her name but was dressed in military uniform, asked how Newsom, as a member of the Board of Regents could justify massive tuition fee increases – 100 percent over six years – while cutting back offerings. “We routinely violate human rights and think nothing of starving our own people, but we wouldn’t dream of such a thing,” this panelist added. Newsom replied that he fought the cuts.

Nehring was then pressed on why he was continuing to issue campaign statements and emails. “Why are you letting this show election go on? Why do you behave as though this was a real contest?” asked the Korean news agency reporter.

“I still have a chance and think I’m connecting with the public,” Nehring replied.

Audience members had been warned, under penalty of being sent to labor camp, not to make a sound. But upon hearing the translation of those words from Nehring, many couldn’t help but laugh.

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