One day after a civil rights leader accused him of using racially charged politics in his criticism of California's prison realignment, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado said Friday that Gov. Jerry Brown and "his buddies are trying to make it about race."
Maldonado, who is preparing to challenge Brown in next year's gubernatorial election, told The Bee he will "probably" stop using the image of a felon to which a leader of the NAACP objected, but that he will continue to cite the case.
Maldonado came under criticism after a news conference Wednesday at which he highlighted a photograph of an offender who was not released from prison under realignment the program Maldonado organized the event to criticize.
Maldonado announced that he will file a ballot initiative to repeal the 2011 law in which the state shifted responsibility for certain low-level offenders from the prison and parole system to counties.
Alice Huffman, president of the California state conference of the NAACP, said in a letter to Maldonado on Thursday that his use of Jerome Anthony Rogers' photograph appears to be a "despicable attempt to drag the Willie Horton-style racial politics of the past into California."
In a telephone interview, Maldonado said, "I would venture to say that probably Gov. Brown asked her to write the letter so that we can change the conversation. This is not about race. This is about violent criminals on our streets. That's what this is about, and Gov. Brown and his buddies are trying to make it about race. They're trying to change the conversation."
When asked if he had any reason to believe that Brown was involved in Huffman's accusation, Maldonado, said, "No, I'm telling you how I feel."
Later, Maldonado said, "You know what? Maybe he didn't ask. But I can tell you this, with all due respect, Alice is wrong about what she wrote to me."
Huffman said she hasn't talked to Brown about Maldonado's news conference and that he had "nothing to do" with her letter.
She accused Maldonado of "race-baiting," adding, "I am absolutely incensed."
Brown's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Democrats kept up their attack on Maldonado.
In a letter Friday, John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, urged Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, to "denounce Abel Maldonado's Willie Horton-style campaign."
Before his arrest last year in San Bernardino on a homicide charge, Rogers, 57, was last released from prison in 2003 eight years before realignment took effect, according to state prison records.
Maldonado, the son of an immigrant farmworker, said he will "probably not" use Rogers' photograph anymore because "I don't want to offend Alice if she feels that way."
However, he said, "I'm going to use the crime that he committed every single day." Maldonado said prison realignment has resulted in crowded county jails, with a systemwide impact resulting in criminals being released earlier than they otherwise would be.
"You know, I respect Alice Huffman a lot, but she's wrong about me, she's wrong about me being racially charged," he said. "I was raised in East L.A., and I was raised in the projects of Santa Maria, California, and I never look at things from the color of people's skin. Never, because I know how it feels."
Maldonado said of Huffman, a former Brown appointee, "I admire Alice and all the work that she does at the NAACP. I mean, she should join me, join me, because our communities are the ones that are being hurt the most."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.