When he’s not seated behind his desk in Sacramento or otherwise tending to state business, California governor Gavin Newsom has a funny way of stumbling into controversy—not to mention offbeat tales that don’t always add up at first glance.

Included on that list: Newsom’s infamous outing to the uber-swank French Laundry restaurant back in November 2020 that both violated existing COVID protocols and fueled a recall election ten months later; then four months after he survived said recall attempt, Newsom again flaunting COVID restrictions by sitting in a luxury suite sans mask at that year’s NFC Championship game in Los Angeles (the governor insisting he “only took the mask off for a brief second”).

The latest addition to the Newsom dossier of oddball outings: his recounting of a trip to a Target store last December to do a little holiday shopping, during which he allegedly witnessed a shoplifter fleeing the store without anyone in hot pursuit.

And, as the theft went down, the governor getting into a spat with a Target employee over Proposition 47, which lessened crimes of shoplifting and grand theft of property valued at less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors. (Critics of Proposition 47, which Newsom supported when it appeared on the 2014 ballot, claim it’s responsible for a shoplifting endemic across the Golden State, with police either not bothering to respond to what are now lower-level crimes or issuing citations instead of arrests.)

Here’s how Newson depicted his Target experience during a recent virtual press conference with California mayors in support of Proposition 1, a mental-health initiative that appears on next month’s primary ballot:

[The shoplifter] picks [up his goods] and keeps walking out as we’re checking out . . . the [Target employee] says, “Oh, he’s just walking out, he didn’t pay for that.” I said, “Well, why don't you stop him?” She goes: “Oh, the governor.”

Newsom added: “Swear to God, true story.”

Newsom then said the Target worker told him, with regard to what constitutes grand theft in California: “The governor lowered the threshold, there’s no accountability.” Newsom then told his audience: “That’s just not true. I said, ‘We have the 10th toughest [threshold]—$950 – it’s the 10th toughest in America.’ She doesn’t even know what I’m talking about.”

But that’s not all that went down at Target, per the governor’s recollection.

Newsom claimed the store worker didn’t recognize him at first but after realizing who he was wanted to share a Kodak moment. “She calls everyone over, wants to take a photo,” Newsom recalled. “I’m like, ‘I’m not taking a photo. We’re going to have a conversation . . . where’s your manager? How are you blaming the governor?’”

As Newsom recounted, he added: “Why am I spending $380 and everyone can walk the hell right out?”

Setting aside some curious aspects of Newsom’s supposed brush with crime—Where was his CHP security detail? Why did he choose to argue over the law rather than help apprehend the lawbreaker?—the story makes one wonder: where has the governor been? For several years now, “shoplifting” and “California” have been as synonymous in Internet search engines as “Swift” and “Kelce.” For Newsom to express surprise that shoplifters are committing their thefts relatively unhindered? It raises the question of what’s in the daily news summary that gubernatorial aides forward to the boss.

Included in such briefings should be this late January story out of Oakland: for the first time in the franchise’s history, In-N-Out is closing a restaurant, the fabled burger chain saying that “despite taking repeated steps to create safer conditions, our customers and associates are regularly victimized by car break-ins, property damage, theft, and armed robberies.”

Less than a mile from that In-N-Out location, Denny’s likewise is pulling out of Oakland due to local crime. The company’s rationale: out of concern for “the safety and well-being” of its customers and employees, it couldn’t go on.

Sadly, this isn’t a story unique to Oakland. Over in San Francisco, Jeffrey’s Toys (it’s the inspiration for the Toy Story film franchise) is saying farewell after 85 years in business. The cause of its demise, according to the store’s lawyer: financial struggles prompted by “the perils and violence of the downtown environment, inflation, the decrease in consumer spending, and the demise of retail across the world.”

And further down in Los Angeles, there’s the specter of Beverly Hills’ high-end stores turned to empty, shuttered spaces after an onslaught of smash-and-grab robberies. It’s part of what retailers now refer to as “shrink” (not to be confused with Seinfeld’s “shrinkage”): retailers nationwide losing tens of billions of dollars in inventory due to coordinated thefts (according to the National Retail Federation, Los Angeles has been America’s most targeted city, in terms of organized retail theft, for the past five years).

Upon further reflection, perhaps such crime- and theft-related stories do make their way into the governor’s press clippings. How else to explain why, just this week, Newsom announced that he’s sending an additional 120 CHP officers to Oakland and the East Bay to crack down on crime – reportedly, a nine-fold increase in the number of state police patrolling the region.  Or why he’s asked the state legislature to address property crimes in its current session?

Per this Politico story, Newsom wants to create “new categories of crimes targeting ‘professional’ offenders who have stolen property or burglarized vehicles with the intent to resell them and to enhance penalties for people who resell large amounts of stolen goods,” as well as “clarify[ing] existing powers to arrest retail thieves and aggregate separate offenses, making permanent a law allowing charges for organized retail crime.”

However, Newsom’s overture does not address the bigger issue of the alleged shortcomings of Proposition 47, which may end up as a topic for voters to decide in the form of a November ballot initiative.

As drafted, the Homeless, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act would amend Proposition 47 as follows:

  • “An offender with two prior convictions can be charged with a felony, regardless of the value of stolen property.”
  • Judges would have the discretion to “impose an enhanced penalty when an offender steals, damages, or destroys property by acting together with two or more offenders or by causing losses of $50,000 or more.”
  • “The value of property stolen in multiple thefts will be permitted to be added together so that in appropriate cases an offender may be charged with felony theft instead of petty theft.”

Will the measure qualify for the November ballot? At last report, its organizers had collected 214,000 voter signatures (546,651 validated signatures have to be collected by the end of April in order to qualify for the November ballot).

And if it qualifies, will it pass?

Four years ago (also a presidential election year with a strong progressive turnout), California voters resoundingly said “no” to amending Proposition 47. That was 2020’s Proposition 20, which received barely 38% support. One of the reasons why Proposition 20 went down in flames: former governor Jerry Brown contributed $1 million to the “no” side (he had nearly $15 million left over from his last gubernatorial campaign). Brown’s argument: as Proposition 20 also amended Proposition 57, which allowed for the early release of nonviolent inmates, the newer initiative would lead to more gangs and violence in California prisons.  

That ballot fight was notable for something other than being one of governor Brown’s last forays into state politics. It occurred at the beginning of a rush of theft-related headlines relating anecdotes and evidence of commercial mainstays unable to go on in a California where crime and punishment do not go hand and hand. Perhaps the pendulum has swung in the other direction in California, with the Golden State now more supportive of tough-on-crime measures.

In his press conference, Newsom didn’t note if he secured everything on his Target shopping list. But by bringing up the story of yet more unbridled shoplifting that draws attention to Proposition 47, perhaps the governor’s crime tale ends up being an early gift for the campaign seeking to rewrite that statute.

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