Dan Morain

B. Wayne Hughes Jr. spends millions and finds God in felons

A guard tower looks over the yard at San Quentin State Prison in 2013.
A guard tower looks over the yard at San Quentin State Prison in 2013. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

B. Wayne Hughes Jr. lives in a Malibu mansion, counts himself as conservative and an obedient servant of Christ, and figures that if he is not a billionaire, he’s pretty darned close.

He helped Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and others’ political action committees.

He sat on the board of American Action Network, which extols a strong military, seeks to abolish Obamacare and mostly tries to elect Republicans; it has spent $43 million in that pursuit since its inception in 2010.

All that money and work for Republicans paled by comparison to Hughes’ accomplishment this year when he put $1.275 million behind the cause of helping petty thieves and drug fiends get out and stay out of prison.

Nearly 60 percent of the electorate agreed with him by voting for Proposition 47, which lowers penalties to misdemeanors for drug possession and property crimes, and could result in the release of 9,000 prisoners.

“I was inspired that the people of California would take time and stop and see the issue for what it was. They have a heart,” Hughes said.

Hughes’ conversion began a few years back when met Chuck Colson, the former Nixon administration official who did time for Watergate crimes and started a prison ministry.

Colson, who died two years ago, invited Hughes to visit the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, which houses more than 6,000 lifers but also has a warden who attempts to reform lower-level inmates.

“I felt I was being called to serve the incarcerated,” Hughes said. “If you have any heart for ministry, prison is where people are being compressed, either into diamonds or dust.”

He resigned from American Action Network and while he still writes a few checks to Republican candidates, he focuses his money and time on saving lost souls. He visits a prison every few months, and funds a prison ministry and several women’s recovery homes.

Not that Hughes is a born-again leftie. He regularly tweets anti-Obama bon mots: “Yep, we have a #nihilist in the white house,” and “This is what you get when you elect a president that has no experience or success running anything #Duh#immigration #amnesty.”

The conservative streak runs deep in the Hughes clan. His father, B. Wayne Hughes Sr., founder of Public Storage, gave at least $2.5 million this year to elect Republicans. Junior’s friends kid him about being a pal with ACLUers and Obama lovers. But the earth seems to be shifting on policy questions of crime.

Before Proposition 47, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed the Legislature to approve criminal justice realignment, which reduced the number of prison-worthy crimes and shifted greater responsibility to local law enforcement.

In 2012, voters by a 70-30 margin approved Proposition 36, which loosened California’s “three-strikes” sentencing law, and has resulted in the release of 1,934 inmates so far. Three strikes, of course, was brought by initiative in 1994 and approved by a 71-29 spread.

Not that crime has vanished as an issue, or that lions are lying down with lambs, but some conservatives and liberals find common ground on crime and punishment.

If you worry about big government, you gag on a $10 billion-a-year California prison budget. If you fret about civil liberties, you get heartburn at the thought of locking up thousands of people for years for relatively petty crimes.

On Proposition 47, Sen. Rand Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were aligned with liberal billionaire George Soros, the ACLU and some of Obama’s earliest and most loyal donors, Piedmont philanthropist M. Quinn Delaney and San Francisco lawyer Steve Phillips.

Soros, the ACLU, Delaney and Phillips joined Hughes as the first donors to the Yes-on-47 campaign. Gingrich and Paul signed op-eds embracing it.

Another reason for the shift is money, or lack of it. In 2004, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson raised $5 million to kill an earlier initiative that would have weakened the three-strikes law.

The current governor took no stand on Proposition 47. Even if Brown had misgivings – there’s no evidence he did – Proposition 47 will reduce prison population, which will help him comply with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, an original funder of the 1994 three-strikes initiative, spent $700,000 to kill the 2004 initiative. The union gave nothing to the anemic No-on-47 campaign.

Chuck Alexander, recently elected leader of CCPOA, said he is focused on striking a new labor contract with the Brown administration. Perhaps not coincidentally, the union gave $100,000 in support of Brown’s priorities, Propositions 1 and 2, the $7.5 billion water bond and the budget overhaul measures approved last month.

Perhaps, too, law enforcement’s clout is waning. Groups representing district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs opposed Proposition 47. But in Orange and Riverside counties, hardly bastions of liberalism, 60 percent of the voters supported it.

In Sacramento County, outgoing District Attorney Jan Scully and Sheriff Scott Jones stumped against the measure. Voters passed it by a 53-47 margin here.

Then there are the images: Ferguson, where protests continue over the exoneration of the officer who shot Michael Brown; New York, where a cop who choked Eric Garner was cleared; and Cleveland, where police killed Tamir Rice, 12, who had a pellet gun at a park. Within some segments of society, distrust of law enforcement festers, and that ought to alarm us all.

“Walk into any jail and see who is populating those places,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, the leading public proponent of Proposition 47, said. “The lack of trust is based on bad experiences, the over-incarceration of African Americans.”

I saw flaws in Proposition 47 and voted against it. But that doesn’t matter. Now, the state must make it work.

Supporters say it will shave hundreds of millions from prison costs, and promise the money would help fund drug-abuse treatment and better care for mentally ill people.

If any of that is real, Brown should account for the peace dividend in the 2015-16 budget he proposes next month.

Gascón said the state must focus on courts to deal with mentally ill people, veterans and drug abusers. Others urge a sentencing commission to review the criminal justice system, and greater attention to the youngest offenders.

Hughes suggested focusing on foster kids who age out of the system. Whatever the next initiative is, Hughes, the Christian, is prepared to spend more: “You can’t outgive God.”

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

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