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Opinion Meet the leading candidate to unseat California’s governor — who doesn’t believe in the minimum wage

Conservative radio host Larry Elder speaks during a campaign stop in Norwalk, Calif., on July 13. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Radio host Larry Elder, the leading opponent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), has long embraced the position that the minimum wage is unnecessary. The conservative even told a newspaper editorial board last week that “the ideal minimum wage is $0.00,” adding, “Why two people who are adults can’t determine what the price of labor ought to be is beyond me.”

Elder later clarified in an interview with Los Angeles’s KABC-TV that he wouldn’t take action on the issue, saying “I have no intention of getting rid of the minimum wage.” But shortly after that, he took to Twitter to once again promote his anti-minimum-wage position.

Such is the state of affairs in California’s recall election. The polls remain tight, with at least one released last week showing that if the election were held at this moment, Newsom would fail to get a majority of the state’s likely voters. Most polls — though not all — show that if Newsom goes down, Elder will get a plurality of the voters, despite the fact that Elder announced his run only last month. (One poll shows voters favoring little-known Democrat Kevin Paffrath, a YouTube vlogger.)

If Newsom is defeated next month, the next governor will be the candidate with the largest number of votes — even if that’s a small minority of all ballots cast. That scenario favors Elder for two reasons. First, he has shared his self-proclaimed “common sense” conservative views on local and national radio, not to mention guest appearances on cable news channels such as Fox News for decades. (If you are wondering, he’s tough on crime, doesn’t like business regulation, doesn’t much like Black Lives Matter and is for charter schools.) And second, most people — except the right-wing, anti-Newsom voters — are barely paying attention to the recall.

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It’s hard, in fact, not to suspect name recognition is playing a major role here. Elder has zero elected government experience. He’s an ardent Trump supporter in a state where even many Republicans find the former president abhorrent. He didn’t even bother to show up to Wednesday night’s Republican candidates' debate.

It seems unfathomable that Californians actually support what amounts to Elder’s fringe, right-wing position on worker pay. Despite the fact that the federal government has left the federal minimum wage at a paltry $7.25 an hour for more than a decade, California has moved aggressively to raise the lowest hourly earnings for its workers. In fact, it’s set to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour for those working at a company with at least 26 workers on Jan. 1 of next year. This almost certainly enjoys large popular approval in the state; a majority of California residents supported the $15 minimum back in 2016.

Nonetheless, Elder would have you believe that in an ideal world, each and every employer and employee would negotiate a minimum pay. This is, to be blunt, ridiculous. We have a minimum wage, in part, because we as a society decided it is not in anyone’s interest for people to work for substandard or nonexistent wages, even if they are willing to do so. (If you think that would never happen, ask any writer or artist how often people in their field are asked — and agreed — to work for “exposure.”)

One other point: When wages are too low, state and federal taxpayers end up subsidizing some of the United States’ largest and wealthiest corporations in the form of providing social welfare benefits, such as food stamps, rental assistance and medical care.

Elder’s position on the minimum wage is hardly a demonstration of his self-proclaimed “common sense.” It is, instead, a demonstration that there is a substantial difference between riffing simplistically about politics on a radio show and wrestling with the complicated reality of governing the nation’s most populous state. Hopefully California voters will realize that before they need to learn that lesson the hard way.