Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Maldonado trips as he gins up crime issue

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Abel Maldonado couldn't get elected lieutenant governor when he ran against Gavin Newsom in 2010 and failed to dislodge Rep. Lois Capps from her Santa Barbara-area congressional seat in 2012.

His chance of defeating Gov. Jerry Brown is roughly zero, give or take a decimal point. But while he risks becoming known as a perennial candidate, Maldonado is raising an issue that is giving Brown pause – crime. It's one that has served Republicans well in the past and has been used more than once against Brown.

Republican consultants, searching for issues other than gay marriage, gunners' rights and immigrant-bashing, are contemplating at least two initiatives that might stoke voters' fears and shape the 2014 general election.

One would jump-start California's long-stalled death penalty, in answer to the failed initiative last year to abolish capital punishment in California. Another idea – Maldonado's brainstorm – would repeal Brown's effort to reduce prison crowding by shifting low-level felons to county jails.

"He is one really bad anecdote away from a political cause," Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said of Brown. "Crime can tick up in importance. The movements happen around specific cases that become high profile."

But as he enters what surely will be his final campaign, Brown is showing that he is as deft as Maldo is clumsy.

Brown, a moral opponent of the death penalty, took time last week to meet with San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos, one of the prosecutors fighting California's death penalty moratorium, now in its seventh year.

Afterward, Ramos sent an email to several prosecutors, sheriffs, campaign consultants and political lawyers: "After a respectful discussion about our philosophical differences regarding the death penalty, we discussed what the law is and how the people voted for capital punishment. He understands the vote of our citizens."

Ramos wrote that despite Brown's opposition to capital punishment, the governor told him he is moving forward with the "single drug protocol" for lethal injections, a step that could speed executions by replacing the current three-drug concoction that federal courts have blocked.

Ramos, a three-term district attorney, is viewed as one of the few California Republicans who could mount a campaign for statewide office. He also would be a force behind any initiative to speed executions of California's 732 condemned inmates, except that he's not so sure one will be needed.

"A lot of people in my world weren't sure where the governor was on the single-drug protocol," Ramos told me by phone. But the prosecutor is taking the governor at his word. "At this time – unless something strange happens – as far as this DA is concerned, I consider him a partner of mine in fighting for justice."

That leaves Maldonado.

On Tuesday, he stumped in Fresno and Bakersfield for his "protect California families" initiative to repeal Brown's "dangerous" criminal justice realignment, and presumably his gubernatorial run.

Alas, Maldonado and his crack team neglected tell anyone at the Fresno Bee or the Bakersfield Californian that he was in their towns, an intriguing campaign tactic, but not one that generally generates much voter excitement.

Maldo's stealthy Central Valley visit came a week after he unveiled his initiative idea by displaying a photo of a black man with the words "Repeat Offender" – a ham-handed move that gave Democrats an opening to denounce the effort as racist.

Maldonado, a decent guy, is no racist. But the vehemence of the Democrats' attack underscored their concern that Brown and Democratic legislators could be in jeopardy on the issue of crime.

Brown's realignment, a reaction to a federal court order that he cut prison population, has reduced the number of prison inmates to below 120,000, from a high of more than 170,000 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Any one of them could commit a terrible act.

Several Democratic legislators have introduced bills that would alter aspects of realignment. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, for one, is alarmed that 40 heavyweight dealers of heroin and other hard drugs are serving long sentences in county jails, and pushed a bill to transfer them back to state prison.

The bill stalled. But when he released his revised budget on Tuesday, Brown said he was proposing a prisoner exchange in which counties could send especially tough jail inmates to prison, in exchange for accepting state inmates who are at the ends of their sentences.

"Is realignment a perfect surgery? No," Brown said, signaling he might be open to further tweaks.

It's all part of the re-election dance. Crime may or may not emerge as an issue in 2014. But Brown is proving that he is adept at dodging it, while Maldonado struggles to be taken seriously.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.