Which is better: Florida or California?
When Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom of California face off Thursday night in a debate on Fox News moderated by Sean Hannity, the question will no doubt be the subtext for the governing vision the men will offer the country.
Unless one of them surprises, expect a lot of hyperpartisan political testosterone.
DeSantis, 45, is already pushing his "Florida blueprint" on the presidential campaign trail, and those of us who live here know what a disaster that is: a near-abortion ban; divisive culture wars that have worsened human relations; right-wing indoctrination and censorship masquerading as a quality education.
Then, there's his unconstitutional gerrymandering of districts to elect more Republicans and make it harder for minorities to vote — while failing to address the housing and property insurance crises in ways that benefit people, not industries.
His national profile rising, Newsom, 56, is considered a stand-in for President Joe Biden. He has built momentum on issues like sensible gun-safety proposals. But, like DeSantis, Newsom is facing declining approval ratings among voters who think he and Biden are hurting their pocketbooks.
What matters most to voters is personal, and while liberal California offers a respite from the constant hard-right harangue in Florida, it's no panacea, either.
During a year's worth of regular visits to the West Coast, I've traveled a road of peaks and lows.
I've gone from falling madly in love with California — and considering its stunning landscapes of mountain and sea as a future alternative to Florida — to experiencing bitter disappointment.
Two major issues plague the state: Excessive living costs that higher salaries can't keep up with — and worse, prevalent crime that seems to be accepted as part of life by authorities and some Californians.
When Sacramento Bee editorial writer and columnist Tom Philp described locals as "getting grouchier and grouchier," I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Even I, an outsider, have felt the mood shift.
Californians are tired of being the victims of thefts. I know how they feel. I became one more statistic last month.
In the lovely suburban city of million-dollar homes where I stay in Orange County, the neighbors constantly wake up to rows of opened mailboxes and stolen mail. Almost every home has cameras and, finally, the thieves got too comfortable and were caught, the clear views of faces on 3 a.m. raids, leading to arrests.
In my case, my credit card information was stolen at an upscale golf club restaurant. The thieves went to town overnight buying a top-of-the-line Roku, comfort bedding and a meditation program (wow, SoCal), only to be stopped when they tried Etsy, and the bank asked for my approval.
It was easy to suspect who the thief was: the only person in possession of my card. The restaurant was the only place I used it. Didn't matter. No one had any interest in doing anything about it. People just shared similar stories, one in "Anacrime," as they've dubbed Anaheim.
People blame Newsom's liberalism and say he's soft on crime.
They point to the controversial zero-bail policy in place for people arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in the city and county of Los Angeles.
This stems from a judge's ruling on a lawsuit, Urquidi v. Los Angeles, that seeks to end the use of cash bail. Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff ruled that holding suspects before their arraignment because they can't pay likely violates their constitutional rights.
The no-bail policy, Californians tell me, is turning the judicial system into a revolving door for criminals. Harsh, but perhaps true?
At first, I thought California's reputation as an expensive destination was an exaggeration. You can still find hotels under $250 a night near beaches and eat healthy on a budget. Fresh food like mushrooms, blueberries, salads and avocados is cheaper than in Florida.
Although gas prices are way higher than in Florida, ride-hailing services for longer distances in Central California have also been cheaper than what I've paid for shorter rides in Miami-Dade.
In both states, high costs are the No. 1 complaint — and people in both say they plan to eventually leave.
No-state-tax Florida is attractive at first — until people realize how thin the safety net is in a state whose Republican governors turn down federal funds, whether it's for Medicaid expansion or energy initiatives.
This summer, DeSantis rejected more than $350 million earmarked under Biden's Inflation Reduction Act to reduce the energy costs of low-income Floridians.
"I personally lost $14,000 which would have upgraded many energy suckers in my home," a Pensacola reader complained.
DeSantis loves to boast about the droves of Americans moving to Florida, but what I see from my generation is an exodus out of Florida, and particularly from Miami, which tops the lists (along with San Diego) of most expensive cities in the country.
DeSantis may be luring conservative Californians, but he's losing well-off boomers sick of his hateful politics.
Which state is better?
In Florida, we've got sinkholes and hurricanes.
In California, it's wildfires and earthquakes.
Pick your poison.