Capitol Alert

California correctional officers launch pro-death penalty campaign

With polls showing California voters poised to abolish the death penalty in just two weeks, the state correctional officers’ union is underwriting a major drive to save capital punishment.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association on Monday released a pair of ads encouraging voters to reject Proposition 62, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole, and support a competing measure, Proposition 66, that aims to expedite the process and resume long-stalled executions.

“Without the death penalty, what’s to stop a killer serving life without parole from killing inside prison?” Chuck Alexander, the union’s president, says in one ad titled “The Worst Among Us.” “It’s our last defense.”

In an email, a spokesman for the No on Prop 62, Yes on Prop 66 campaign said an ad buy “well into the seven figures” will keep the message on broadcast and cable in the vote-rich Los Angeles media market and on Facebook and other websites statewide through the Nov. 8 election. The prison guards’ union, a former political powerhouse that has been largely quiet in recent election cycles, now holds nearly $7.5 million in its political committee.

The spending could be pivotal for the campaign to maintain the death penalty in a state where public approval has fallen to historic lows. Four years after Californians narrowly rejected another attempt to abolish capital punishment, polling has consistently shown Proposition 62 close to the majority support it would need to pass.

The most recent Field Poll had Proposition 62 ahead 48 percent to 37 percent among likely voters, with another 15 percent undecided. Proposition 66, meanwhile, trailed decidedly, with only 35 percent of respondents inclined to vote for it.

More comfortable leads have been vanquished by last-minute television bombardments.

In 2004, an initiative to limit California’s “three strikes” criminal sentencing law was projected for a 40-point margin of victory in October polls. Then, only 12 days before the election, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III agreed to bankroll a nearly $2 million TV ad campaign against the measure, starring then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The initiative ultimately failed with only 47 percent of the vote, a stunning collapse that experts at the time called “unprecedented.”

But Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo cautioned that a relatively modest ad buy of $1 million or $2 million is unlikely to have a similar effect in this year’s “crowded, cluttered environment.”

“This is a ballot that has hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on it, so it’s going to be hard to get their message through,” he said. “There’s so much advertising going on, and there’s so many ballot measures for voters to consider.”

The proponents of Proposition 62 have recently hit the airwaves with their own ads emphasizing the cost savings of abolishing capital punishment.

Jim Gonzalez, a consultant for the campaign, said having an opponent with the resources to get on broadcast television is of “great concern” for any initiative. But, he added, their measure is tracking better than the death penalty repeal was at the same point in 2012 and they “feel momentum.”

“We are going to match their advertising in the same markets,” he said, “and we expect to receive some contributions that will allow us to expand our buy into other markets, including maybe Sacramento.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff