Crime And (Incumbent) Punishment In California?

Wednesday, April 20, 2022
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One frustration with statewide elections in California: the predictability of it all.

That begins at the top of the ballot.

A Republican presidential nominee last carried the Golden State in November 1988—a few months after a then 19-year-old Elon Musk moved from South Africa to Canada, hoping one day to emigrate to America.

In the eight presidential elections since, only once has a Democratic nominee failed to carry America’s most populous state by a margin less than double digits—a remarkable turn of events considering that Ronald Reagan twice breezed to easy double-digit margins to win California in the 1980s and that GOP presidential hopefuls carried the Golden State in seven of eight national elections prior to Reagan.

The next stops down the ballot are little better, competition-wise.

Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger served seven-plus years as governor in the first decade of the 21st century. But that began with a recall election in October 2003. Otherwise, one has to venture back to 1990 to find a nonincumbent Republican winning a regularly scheduled gubernatorial election in California.

Fine then, what about US Senate contests? The last nonincumbent Republican to win one of those in California: Pete Wilson—the same gentleman elected governor in 1990 —who earned a six-year stay in Washington by knocking off Jerry Brown . . . in 1982.

As for California’s other statewide constitutional offices, the pattern holds. Not counting the governor, seats on the State Board of Equalization, or California’s superintendent of public instruction (candidates for that latter post can’t list their party affiliations on the ballot), the Golden State offers voters six statewide offices to decide every four years: lieutenant governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner, secretary of state;, state controller, and state treasurer. The scorecard for Democrats in those 30 contests this century: 29 wins and one loss (independent Steve Poizner being the victor in 2006’s insurance commissioner contest).

Which raises the question: Will this November be any different than past California elections? Probably not, though one race does bear watching: the contest for state attorney general—aka, California’s “top cop.”

Back in 2010, the AG’s race nearly yielded a rare Republican victory when Steve Cooley—at the time, Los Angeles County’s district attorney—lost by a difference of 75,000 votes, or less than 1% statewide (ironically, Cooley lost the statewide contest by losing his home county by nearly 315,000 votes).

What happens if Cooley were the victor in that race rather than the Democrat who’d go on to reelection in 2014 before setting her sights on the US Senate two years later? Odds are that Kamala Harris, San Francisco County’s DA back in 2010, would not be a household name at present.

But political what-ifs aren’t the reason why this year’s AG contest is worth a closer look. Rather, it’s a function of two unknowns, the first being the impact of crime and public safety as a primary voter concern.

A Berkeley Institute of Government Studies poll released last week has crime as a top-tier issue, running third behind housing affordability and homelessness (and one spot ahead of gasoline prices). A shock poll that wasn’t, as it confirms changing sentiment in the Golden State. Public opinion surveys show a 9% rise in the number of California voters (now 64%) who deem crime and violence as a problem.

Potentially, that’s big trouble for Democrat Rob Bonta, appointed state attorney general in March 2021 after his predecessor, Xavier Becerra, became the nation’s federal health secretary (Becerra’s legacy as California’s “top cop”: filing 110 lawsuits against the Trump administration in two years’ time).

Bonta’s problem in the current political landscape: in the crime-weary California of 2022, “woke” might be broke as a rationale for serving in a law-enforcement position.

Consider these words from governor Gavin Newsom as he introduced Bonta as California’s first Filipino American AG just 13 months ago: “This is an incredibly important office in the cause of, yes, racial justice, social justice, economic justice, environmental justice.” Bonta, in turn, lamented “the sting of hate and discrimination. Once in office, the new attorney general wasted little time before announcing a new Racial Justice Bureau, within the state’s Department of Justice, “to address bias and hate at their roots and to strengthen responses to hate crimes in California.”

Nearly a year later, crime is at the top of the news across California on a seemingly daily basis—strong-arm robberies in Los Angeles and even in such unexpected locales as decidedly upscale Palo Alto. Translation: California might be fertile ground for a tough-on-crime candidate.

Which takes us to the second unknown in this year’s AG’s race: political independence. Namely, can a candidate not affiliated with either major party finish in the top two in June’s primary, then mount a spirited challenge come November?

In 2022, that would be Sacramento district attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican turned independent and a fan favorite of California law enforcement and victims’ rights groups.

For Schubert, who’s running not just against Bonta but also the past decade’s softening of California crime statutes, this month’s mass shooting in Sacramento was a chance to showcase her message. Which she promptly did.

Noting that one of the accused shooters served less than half of a ten-year sentence for domestic violence and assault, thanks to “good behavior” credits made possible by 2016’s Proposition 57, Schubert went on the offensive: “When you have individuals that are committing crimes and using guns . . . we have to not let them out of jail early.”

The question: As a political independent (“no party preference,” in California-speak), does Schubert have a natural constituency—i.e., a political base sizable enough to achieve at least a second-place finish in the June primary? In a general election, will she have the financial resources necessary (other than law-enforcement largesse) to mount an aggressive media campaign against a vaunted Democratic campaign machine?

Speaking of the June primary, another contest that day may offer a window into the potency of crime as an election determinant in California come November: the possible recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin (while polling is scant, this March survey showed Boudin in big trouble).

Boudin’s strategy, much like what worked for Newsom in turning back last year’s failed gubernatorial recall: make the contest a referendum on the recall itself. Which, politically at least, seems wiser than arguing statistics. According to San Francisco Police Department data, the city’s witnessed a 32% increase in car break-ins so far in 2022, while larceny thefts are up 29%.

About San Francisco: it’s on the current attorney general’s resume (he spent nine years as San Francisco’s deputy city attorney). It’s also an easy drive west from Sacramento.

So why wait until for November for Bonta and Schubert to have an overdue debate over crime and punishment in the Golden State?