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May 23, 2013
Guest Opinion: If Maldonado wants to pursue crime issue ...

Abel_Maldonado.jpg

(May 23 -- By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

Assuming that Jerry Brown seeks another term as governor, it will mark the eighth time that he or a blood relative has sought the top job in Golden State politics and the 18th time in post-World War II California that one of three Browns (father Edmund G. "Pat," son Jerry, daughter Kathleen) has appeared on a November ballot. That includes state and federal offices, beginning with Pat's first run for attorney general back in 1946 - the same year the Kennedy political dynasty began, with John F. Kennedy winning his first congressional race - and ending (maybe) with Jerry's re-election bid next year.

In one of those contests, the 1994 governor's race, the three worlds of the three Browns collided - and it wasn't a pretty picture. Running to unseat then-Gov. Pete Wilson, Kathleen Brown blamed alleged bumbling by her Republican opponent for the early release of a convicted rapist. The problem was, her brother had signed the law that mandated the felon's early release. Moreover, her father had appointed the judge who handed down a lighter sentence.

Though not a political novice, Kathleen Brown had committed two sins, the first being that of omission - she failed to anticipate how the charge could backfire against her by doing something as simple as researching the family tree.

The second sin - and it's one that campaigns frequently commit - right issue, wrong approach.

Public safety was the predominant issue in the Golden State in 1994, with four of every five California voters listing crime as their greatest concern. So Brown was correct in trying to get the upper hand on a pivotal issue. But by bungling the accusation, she managed to introduce the topic in a way that turned punitive-minded voters against her.

He's no Brown, and he's no Democrat, but former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado has this much in common with Jerry's sister: He wants to unseat a governor, he thinks crime's the ticket and his first weak-on-crime volley at Brown turned out to be an exploding cigar. How else to measure Maldonado's news conference, when it turns out the felon highlighted by the Republican challenger wasn't part of Brown's controversial "realignment" of California, or the raft of bad press chastising the normally affable Maldonado for taking a racially tinged low road?

The bad press and bad staff work notwithstanding, Maldonado might be on to something. Violent crimes increased in three-fifths of California's 69 largest cities in the first half of last year, the largest such gain in 20 years. Property crimes are up 5 percent - the kind of misery that cuts across voting lines (I can personally attest to this, having my car stolen in midtown Sacramento soon after coming to California in 1994).

But is crime a topic foremost on voters' minds, as it was back in the 1994 race? At the moment, it seems not. And it might not be by 2014, unless events warrant otherwise.

The Wilson-Brown race was preceded by Polly Klaas' murder in October 1993. And before that the June 1992 murder of Kimber Reynolds, plus the Los Angeles riots and California's first execution in a quarter- century, which occurred just eight days apart in April the same year. Waiting on the November 1994 ballot: Proposition 184, the state's new "three strikes" law (it passed with nearly 72 percent support).

Though the recent Leila Fowler murder case was a reminder of those grim times, California isn't wallowing in the same prolonged misery of senseless death. And Brown isn't taking any chances. Tucked away in the May budget is money to create a program in which counties and prisons could swap inmates - which sounds suspiciously like what legislative Republicans are clamoring for. Brown may be quizzical, but he's no dummy - he knows an ounce of budgetary prevention in 2013 is better than a pound of political pain 2014.

Should Maldonado want to continue with the crime push, here's a suggestion: To do what Wilson did - beat a Brown - approach the issue the same as Wilson did. Instead of holding Sacramento news conferences, the challenger should surround himself with crime victims in venues beyond the state Capitol. Make them, not an overblown blowup, your photo op. Stand alongside law enforcement and locally elected officials and address their communities' needs and concerns (to the extent that a district attorney will want to incur the Brown administration's wrath by doing so).

This was Pete Wilson's approach to public safety in California - successful in that it not only got him on the evening news but repeatedly met with voters' approval.

Time will tell if Maldonado, or any Republican challenger looking to unseat what may be the last of the Browns, will be as adept at converting a crime wave into a political tsunami.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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