By Phil Willon

Gavin Newsom kicked off a statewide bus tour Monday in the Santa Clarita Valley to bolster fellow Democrats in California's contested congressional races, saying the party's efforts to retake control of the House with President Trump in the White House was just as critical to the state as his campaign to become its next governor.

The Democratic front-runner headed first to the Santa Clarita Valley for a tour stop in Stevenson Ranch to support Katie Hill, who is trying to unseat two-term incumbent Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale). A former director of a nonprofit assisting the homeless, Hill was praised by Newsom for providing a "positive alternative agenda to Donald Trump."

Newsom insisted he wasn't taking his gubernatorial bid for granted by focusing on down-ballot races -- he leads Republican John Cox in the polls and fundraising. And while he groused that the governor's race was shadowed by daily eruptions in Washington, the lieutenant governor said the future of California and the nation rests largely in the outcome of the midterm congressional elections.

"It would not be much of a victory, from my perspective, winning the governor's race and continuing the status quo as it relates to Trump," Newsom said after the rally.

Though the 25th Congressional District -- which includes Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, Palmdale and a portion of Lancaster -- is home to a significant number of Republican voters, Hill said Newsom's support is essential to motivating Democrats and left-leaning moderates there to vote in November.

"At this point, this is a moral imperative. This is all about voting," Hill told an enthusiastic crowd packed into her campaign headquarters, noting that Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans in the congressional district by nearly 4 percentage points. "If we vote, we win."

At the rally, Newsom was introduced by a former Democratic rival in the governor's race, Antonio Villaraigosa, who finished third in the June primary and later endorsed Newsom. The former Los Angeles mayor said he's spent the past three decades traveling the country to help Democrats, telling voters each time it was the most critical election of their lifetime.

"This time it actually happens to be true," Villaraigosa said to laughter from the crowd.

Newsom plans to spend the week traveling the state -- visiting the Inland Empire, the Central Valley and Orange County -- to help Democrats fighting to unseat or defeat Republicans in some of the state's most watched congressional and legislative races.

Aboard his campaign bus as it headed to the Inland Empire, Newsom accused his Republican opponent of running a tightly controlled campaign that he said was filled more with "platitudes" than substance. Newsom said that while Cox has been hyper-focused on repealing the gas tax increase, he has struggled to raise money for a ballot measure campaign to scrap the $52-billion transportation law enacted last year to finance road and highway repair projects.

"He has not necessarily expanded the conversation about why he is running for governor outside of broad-stroke condemnation of the housing crisis in the state and the homeless crisis," Newsom told reporters.

Cox released a new statewide radio ad on Monday highlighting the economic stress he says the gas-tax increase has placed on working Californians.

"Politicians like Gavin Newsom talk about change, but they've done nothing," Cox said in a statement released by his campaign Monday. "In fact, it's only gotten worse with unaffordable housing, sky-high gas and food prices, failing schools, and homelessness. It all happened on Gavin Newsom's watch."

The most recent public opinion polls show Newsom with a double-digit lead over Cox, though a recent poll by Probolsky Research of Newport Beach showed Newsom ahead by just 5 percentage points. The Cox campaign touted the findings, though Newsom dismissed that poll as an "outlier."

Despite an unmistakable air of confidence permeating the Newsom campaign, the Democratic candidate says he has instructed his staff to never utter the "T word" -- "transition" -- because he does not want to give the impression he thinks victory is inevitable. Whoever is elected governor in November will have just two months before lawmakers return to Sacramento to hire a team of top-level advisors who will help craft a new state budget and map out legislative priorities.

"I'm a student of some history of politics. I don't think there's anything worse than getting ahead of yourself," Newsom said Monday. "We're running the 100-yard dash, not the 90-yard dash. That's why we're going on a bus tour. That's why we're having another town hall later tonight."

Still, Newsom said he has put together 30 policy teams, with 335 people working on them. Those enlisted will determine how to turn the planks of his campaign platform -- issues including healthcare, education, criminal justice, affordable housing and addressing homelessness and poverty -- into pragmatic government policy.

"How we can translate these policies into an actual agenda? [We're looking at] what can be done through executive order, what requires legislative effort, what legislative work has already been done on those topics," Newsom said. "These folks are out there substantively looking at all of this."

One topic that Newsom said he continues to struggle with is the death penalty, noting that he "has not been a proponent" of capital punishment on moral, ethical and economic grounds. He said he's been studying the issue in detail because California's next governor might face a decision to approve an execution, due to a statewide ballot measure approved by voters in 2016 to streamline death penalty appeals.

Newsom and his advisors have been researching pending legal challenges to the death penalty in California. Executions cannot resume again until those legal challenges are resolved. California's last execution occurred in January 2006.

"I'm not prepared to answer the question," Newsom said when asked if he would approve an execution. "But I am preparing myself to answer the question."

(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times