SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson is in his office, lunching on a chicken sandwich with veggies after having attended the Polly Klaas memorial service in Petaluma the night before. He says he almost lost it twice: once when a children's choir performed, and later when Linda Ronstadt sang one of Polly's favorites while standing with the murdered girl's friends and sisters.
The governor had spoken at the service, giving a tough--some would say political--speech, pledging to fight for laws "ensuring that career criminals become career inmates." He endorsed the "three strikes and you're out" initiative and also advocated life imprisonment for first-time rapists and child molesters. "Let their first offense be their last," he exhorted.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 14, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilson on sentencing--Because of an editing error in the Capitol Journal column Monday, Gov. Pete Wilson was referred to incorrectly as saying Polly Klaas' father wanted him to join the fight for tougher sentencing. Actually, the father informed Wilson that he, Marc Klaas, wanted to join the fight. Wilson has long advocated tougher prison sentences.
I asked Wilson how he would answer people who might accuse him of exploiting the tragedy and think it unseemly. After mentioning something about "cynical bastards" in the press, he acknowledged: "It's tough. There's a very narrow line that has to be walked."
Polly's father, Marc Klaas, had asked him to speak and also had informed him he wanted the governor to join the fight for tougher sentencing, Wilson explained. "So I thought it was not inappropriate."
"You know," he added, "there's a hell of a lot more that could be said."
Then he said it, referring irately to Richard Allen Davis, the habitual criminal who police say has confessed to kidnaping and strangling 12-year-old Polly:
"I mean, when I think of that son of a bitch, you cannot help but be angered. Did you see the picture of him on the front page of the (San Francisco) Chronicle? Smirking? Jesus, boy. I wanted to just belt him right across the mouth."
Leaving aside Davis, did the governor think such a crime should be punishable by the death penalty? Wilson didn't want to leave aside Davis. "For what he's done? He's \o7 gonna\f7 get the death penalty, I would warrant. And should he? Hell yes."
And that returns us to politics.
State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, the front-runner for the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, will outline her anti-crime program today in Burbank. She'll advocate more gun control, longer sentences, getting tough with juveniles--and try to persuade people that her opposition to capital punishment shouldn't matter. She'll promise to enforce the death penalty, regardless of her personal view.
It is the same position that befuddled and blemished her father and brother when they were governor. And it damaged then-Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp when he was beaten by Dianne Feinstein for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1990.
Now, Brown's 1994 opponents--Democratic Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and, potentially, Republican Wilson--plan to use it in an effort to persuade the vast majority of voters who support the death penalty that she cannot be trusted to implement it.
"It's legitimately an issue," Wilson contended between bites of his chicken sandwich. "If in good conscience she really cannot support it, then she's hardly going to push for a death penalty. . . . I would think she'd probably find all kinds of reasons to grant clemency."
As for himself, Wilson said he intends next year to push for extending capital punishment to drive-by shooters and carjackers who cause deaths.
And during lunch, he announced his support for legislation to deny conjugal visits for inmates convicted of violent crimes. He thinks cutting off their sex would deter other potential felons. "A hell of a lot of these (inmates) don't feel terribly deprived now," he said.
Wilson may be far behind in the polls--and be the most unpopular first-term governor in decades--but he still believes his enemies are right where he wants them. And he is where he could only dream of being a year ago.
This year, without question, has been his best as governor: No budget stalemate. No nasty fights. A bipartisan package of economic stimulus bills. A boost from his tough stance on illegal immigration. An election victory for Proposition 172, his sales tax for law enforcement. And now the economy is showing signs of possible recovery.
"It'll be a tough fight, but I think I'll win," he said unhesitatingly. "People are beginning to understand that, No. 1, I didn't create this (economy) and, No. 2, I've been struggling with it and have had to make some tough, unpleasant, unpopular decisions. And it seems to be beginning to turn out the right way."
And there also is crime, which the Field Poll recently found to be the public's No. 1 concern. Wilson is bound to benefit. Exactly how much could depend on whether Brown's position on capital punishment satisfies the voters--and whether they are shocked by more tragedies like Polly Klaas' murder.