Playing politics with crime in west-coast state

By Around the Web

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Wire.]

By Susan Crabtree
Real Clear Wire

California’s fierce political battle over crime and retail theft faces a key test this week as divided Democrats in the legislature address efforts by Gov. Gavin Newsom and his allies to undermine a public-safety ballot initiative.

The ballot initiative would overhaul Proposition 47, a law voters approved in 2014 that lowered certain theft and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors partly as a way of reducing prison overcrowding.

Newsom was among the first elected officials to support Proposition 47, a ballot initiative written by reform-minded George Gascon, who was then the district attorney in San Francisco. (In an unusual move, Gascon is now the DA in Los Angeles.)

But the pendulum has now swung in the other direction, with critics blaming Prop 47 for the steep rise in retail theft and smash-and-grab “mob” robberies of both high-end department stores and convenience stores that have plagued retailers across the state.

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Californians for Safer Communities, a bipartisan group made up of law enforcement officials, elected officials, and businesses, including Walmart and Target, collected more than 900,000 signatures in support of a ballot initiative that would reform Prop 47 by increasing penalties for criminals. In early June, the initiative qualified for the November ballot, a move Newsom and liberal supporters in the state legislature opposed.

Instead of letting voters decide its fate, Newsom and his allies, which includes Assembly and Senate leaders, pushed a raft of public safety bills aimed at addressing organized retail theft, car break-ins, and other crimes. They are also working hard to thwart a separate ballot initiative sponsored by the California District Attorneys Association, which has attracted widespread Republican and law enforcement support.

Democrats in the state Assembly added “inoperability” clauses to the proposed public safety bills to prevent them from going into effect if voters approve the ballot initiative aimed at reforming Prop 47. They contend that such clauses are needed to ensure that the law is consistent.

Critics of the move argue that the Democrats’ “poison pill” measure is designed solely to circumvent California’s storied referendum process. Instead of letting voters determine the ballot initiative’s fate, Newsom and his allies are trying to undermine it apparently because they fear it could attract strong support – with the added impact of helping Republicans in key Congressional races this fall.

“Democrats need to stop playing politics with public safety and let voters decide on fixing Prop. 47,” Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher said in a statement. “These poison pills show that Democrats aren’t serious about ending the crime wave – they just want to look like they’re doing something because their years-long support for criminals has become a political liability.”

The machinations to undermine a ballot initiative on crime came the same week the California Supreme Court unexpectedly rejected another referendum that had attained enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot but which Democrats opposed. The court stopped a sweeping proposal that would have made it far more difficult for lawmakers to raise taxes and fees across the state. The justices unanimously ordered that the measure be kept off the ballot, finding it unconstitutional – even though it was an effort to amend California’s Constitution.

Republicans and conservative activists who backed and financed the initiative, which they say had collected more than 1.4 million signatures, are fuming over the move. Carl DeMaio, a candidate for state Assembly and chairman of the group that helped collect the anti-tax initiative signatures, said the state liberal justices sided with “corrupt politicians” to strip citizens of their rights to qualify propositions for the ballot.

Several other ballot initiatives aimed at increasing taxes are slated for the November ballot, and now citizens won’t have a countermeasure to vote on, he said. “The bottom-line remains: Californians cannot afford our state’s high taxes and cost of living – and until we fix the cost crisis, Californians will continue to flee this state,” DeMaio tweeted.

Regarding Democratic leaders’ efforts to thwart the Prop 47 reform measures, Republicans got a surprise assist from several normally skeptical journalists. George Skelton, the longtime Los Angeles Times columnist and dean of the California press corps, wrote a column last week headlined: “Stop playing politics on retail theft.”

“…Democrats cynically intend to insert a ‘poison bill’ that would automatically kill their own legislation if a rival tough-on-crime ballot measure is approved by voters in November,” he wrote. “To normal people, that must seem bizarre.”

“Democrats fear the ballot measure so much they’re offering its backers an offer they can’t refuse,” Skelton added. “At least that’s the Democrats’ hope. The message: Take what you can get immediately from the legislation – or risk losing it if the ballot measure passes.”

Criticism only increased over the week after CBS New California broke a story revealing that Newsom’s chief of staff would not negotiate to strengthen the Democratic package of crime bills unless the coalition backing the Prop 47 reform ballot initiative agreed to postpone that effort.

In leaked emails, Newsom Chief of Staff Dana Williamson told Greg Totten, the coalition’s lead negotiator, that Democrats would be willing to negotiate on its package of crime bills – but only if the matter was tabled until 2026. “As I noted previously, our focus is on amending Proposition 47 on the 2024 ballot,” Totten replied. “If the administration is prepared to consider an amendment of Proposition 47 on the 2024 ballot, then we are happy to meet.”

Williamson then abruptly cut Totten off. “If that’s your position, then I agree, there’s nothing to talk about.” She added, “It’s really amazing how you are incapable of taking a win. And the consultants you’re working with haven’t won anything in a decade. Good luck.”

Republicans and journalists aren’t the only ones who find the inoperability clauses disingenuous. At least three Democratic state lawmakers removed their names from retail theft bills included in the package after the clauses were added, and district attorneys and law enforcement associations in their districts pulled their support.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, yanked his support from the retail theft bill package because of the added inoperability clauses.

“Unfortunately, I can’t support the retail theft package, which contains my Retail Theft Accountability bill, AB 1794, with the poison pill non-operative amendments included,” McCarty noted. McCarty is running for mayor of Sacramento and has positioned himself more to the center while facing a progressive opponent.

Democratic state Sen. Alvarado-Gil and Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria, who both represent the more conservative Central Valley, also withdrew their names as co-authors of retail theft bills included in the package.

“I oppose the amendments to these two bills, and I was not consulted about them prior,” Alvarado-Gil said in her weekly newsletter to constituents. “Let me be clear – I do support the Prop 47 reform initiative and believe the voters have the right to vote on this. This is not about the policy; it’s about the politics.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership also faces opposition to both the retail theft legislative package and the ballot initiative from the progressive wing of the party, which opposes any criminal justice reforms that will result in increased incarceration.

“The [Democratic] leadership here has gotten a little bit too far out front of their troops,” GOP Sen. Roger Niello told RealClearPolitics in an interview Friday. “I know a lot of members of their caucus didn’t even know about this amendment move and only heard about it over the [previous] weekend.”

A spokeswoman for Speaker of the Assembly Robert Rivas did not respond to a request for comment about the level of Democratic support for the amended legislative package. This bill was also amended to include an urgency clause, which means it goes into effect immediately. Yet to do so would require a two-thirds majority of the Assembly and Senate. Sacramento insiders say the urgency is needed because of another deadline.

Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta faces a Thursday deadline to provide a title and summary for the ballot initiative and is poised to characterize the proposition as one that would kill the legislature’s anti-crime reform bills. He can only do so, however, if the retail theft package with the inoperability clauses passes with a supermajority this week before the deadline.

Some California political observers assume Newsom is trying to keep Prop 47 intact to protect his political legacy for any future White House run. But others believe Democratic leaders fear the more immediate political fallout – that the tough-on-crime ballot initiative could help turn out more Republican voters this fall, giving GOP candidates for the House of Representatives an edge in tight election contests that could determine which party holds the majority.

“What the Democrats are doing has gotten the Sacramento Bee editorial board, which is to the left of Mao, to agree with Republicans in the legislature,” Rob Stutzman told RCP. “This is absolutely raw politics. This is all about Democrats doing everything in the world to keep this issue off the ballot in November because of how it could affect congressional races and, therefore, the balance of who controls the House of Representatives.”

This past week, Dave Min, a state senator running in a tight battleground contest to replace Rep. Katie Porter this fall, joined his party’s push to undercut the ballot initiative by supporting the addition of the “poison-pill” amendments. Min, who authored a piece of the public safety package, has joined the Democratic leadership in a press conference in which they unveiled their strategy to add the inoperability clause to the legislation.

Over the last week, Min also twice said he didn’t have a position on the Prop 47 reform ballot initiative because he had been too busy to read it.

“I’m sorry, and I’ll be honest, I have not had time to review the initiative,” Min said during an Appropriations Committee meeting while the amendments were being added. “I’ve got a lot on my plate these days. At the point in time when the ballot is finalized, I’m going to take a look at all the initiatives on the ballot and take a look at them.”

Min’s position is a hire-wire act in his Orange County district, where prominent law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Don Barnes, vigorously back the ballot initiative. It also risks highlighting Min’s DUI conviction last year.

“Dangerous Dave Min puts criminals ahead of victims because he is a criminal,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ben Petersen said in a statement. “Min earns a special spot in the hall of shame shilling for these poison pills while on probation himself.”

If the Democratic retail theft package with the amendments manages to pass this week, Skelton says Bonta has a tough decision to make – whether or not to “doctor up” the bill title and summary to undermine its ability to pass and risk “tarnishing his image by looking like just another hack politician.”

Niello is watching Bonta closely because he has long tried to transfer the responsibility of writing proposition titles and summary statements from the attorney general to an independent legislative analyst.

“There’s been so many blatantly biased statements made, and this whole strategy that [Democratic leaders] are pursuing is dependent upon the attorney general rewriting it in a negative light,” Niello said.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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