Politics of Crime Takes Center Stage in California

Recent salvos between state treasurer and governor could set tone for next campaign

CRIME is an issue that has helped put several generations of Republicans in the governor's mansion in California, and, in the case of Ronald Reagan, perhaps in a loftier residence.

So as crime now moves up on the state's political agenda, no one seems better positioned to benefit than Pete Wilson, California's down-in-the-polls Republican governor, who is now expected to face a tough reelection fight next year.

Conventional wisdom suggests Mr. Wilson will do particularly well on the issue if his challenger next fall is State Treasurer Kathleen Brown (D), who personally opposes the death penalty in a state where capital punishment garners Jurassic-Park popularity.

But this week Ms. Brown took the law-and-order issue directly to the governor, outlining a 33-point program to combat crime and accusing Wilson of ``passivity, timidity, and indecision.''

While many analysts believe that she is still vulnerable on the issue, largely because of the death penalty, they note that Wilson will have to do more than stress his support of the gas chamber to win.

The early maneuvering on crime and capital punishment points up what is likely to be a major theme in next year's election - with lessons for the rest of the country in 1996.

``It is going to be an emotional issue,'' says Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist here. ``But it is one demagoguery isn't going to work on.''

Crime has become the state's latest ``hot button'' issue as a result of almost a daily dose of murder and mischief.

One week residents learn that many of this year's fires were the work of arsonists. Then a gunman opens fire at an unemployment office in Ventura County. Concern about crime reached still higher after the kidnapping death of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma.

Wilson, who has made law and order a central campaign theme over the years, has been italicizing the crime issue for months. He was there to deliver a tough and emotional speech at the Klaas memorial service, for example.

Among his latest crusades: seeing that first-time rapists and child molesters get life imprisonment and supporting a proposed ballot initiative that would send a convict to prison for life if convicted of three felonies.

This week it was would-be nominee Brown's turn to proffer ideas as part of a series of addresses she has been giving on major issues (others were on immigration and education). At a luncheon of law-enforcement officers, she called for stricter gun laws, tougher sentences for repeat offenders, and more boot camps for prisoners.

She, too, backs the ``three strikes'' initiative for repeat offenders, advocates trying violent teenagers as adults, and suggests eliminating conjugal visits for prison inmates.

The blueprint goes further in some areas than Wilson's has, but, analysts say, breaks little new ground. Most doubt it will blunt the edge the governor may hold on the issue.

``She is a lot better off raising the issue herself at this time, rather than waiting to be attacked and put on the defensive because of the death penalty,'' says veteran California pollster Mervin Field, whose surveys show that more than 75 percent of Californians support capital punishment. ``But it is going to pose difficulties for her,'' he says.

Analysts argue that it is still difficult for a woman to be perceived as tough on crime. Brown may also be hampered because, as state treasurer, she isn't as directly involved in law enforcement.

Wilson and Brown have a probable opponent for the Democratic nomination, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who also favors the death penalty. He will be reminding voters at every turn about her capital-punishment stance, as he did after her speech Monday.

Brown says she can enforce California's death-penalty law as effectively as Wilson. Her position appears similar to former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who personally opposed capital punishment in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign but vowed to carry out the law. He lost the Democratic primary to Dianne Feinstein, a death- penalty supporter, though more issues were involved than crime.

Opponents, too, will be trying to link Brown to her father and brother, both former governors bedeviled at times by the capital-punishment issue.

``This is the only card Wilson really has to play,'' says William Carrick, a Democratic strategist who helped run Ms. Feinstein's unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial bid against Wilson.

Still, no one is writing off the chances of the state treasurer. Who knows what the issues will be in 11 months?

Wilson faces major problems of his own - including an ailing economy that could be his Achilles' heel. Nor is there any certainty that Brown will be upstaged on crime.

``Wilson makes a mistake if he thinks he can only run on the death penalty,'' says Barbara Johnson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Mr. Van de Kamp.

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