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Wilson Hoping Crime Will Assure His Job--but What Has He Done So Far? : California: Brown and Garamendi aren't comfortable with safety issues, but the public is in a punishing mood, and the gubernatorial race begins.

January 09, 1994|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV.

SACRAMENTO — Does crime pay? Gov. Pete Wilson and the two most probable Democratic challengers for his job, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Gara mendi, certainly must think so.

In normal years, governors use the State of the State Address to frame their vision of California's future and to outline their assessment of how the state has performed under their stewardship. But election years are far from normal.

Historically, election-year State of the States have offered California's chief executives an unrivaled pulpit from which to set the tone and agenda of their campaigns. All governors have sought to use the speech to shape perceptions for a political contest that inevitably becomes a referendum on them. That's particularly critical for Wilson.

"This election," one analyst observed, "is about Pete Wilson and someone else." Right now, the polls tell us that "someone else" is winning. So with a single-mindedness unmatched by his predecessors, Wilson focused on crime and jobs, the issues polls say are of greatest concern to California's voters.

Wilson has decided that if there's going to be a referendum on him--his latest approval rating is 31%--he'd better make it a referendum on him and crime.

He certainly can't count on an economic upturn to boost his popularity. Many Californians think he has hurt the state's economy--in last year's State of the State, he lamented California's loss of competitiveness. Others think he has been ineffective in addressing its unemployment problems.

But Wilson has already cultivated a tough persona on public-safety issues; his opponents haven't. In fact, people know little about candidates Brown and Garamendi, let alone where they stand on issues. At this stage, the governor's race is a war to shape perceptions. And that could mean trouble for both Democrats.

For starters, public-safety and law-enforcement themes tend to be Republican staples. Even "New Democrats," moving toward the center on crime, are finding it hard to break that stereotype.

Seldom have two people looked more uncomfortable than Brown and Garamendi when they played Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum on crime in response to Wilson's speech--and it wasn't simply because they had to sit together.

Late last year, Brown tried to defend her death-penalty position after giving a major law-enforcement speech. She said she privately opposed it, but would, as governor, carry out the law. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

There are other risks for Brown if crime remains the dominant campaign theme. Women candidates tend to fare less well on the issue. For Brown, compounding that perceived weakness is the fact that both Wilson and Garamendi are trying to position her as "Jerry Brown's sister who opposes the death penalty."

Another problem that may haunt Kathleen Brown's candidacy is that she has been described as a candidate tailor-made for the 1992 election season--the Year of the Woman--but out of sync with the more masculine issues that are emerging to dominate the 1994 political scene--crime, immigration, economics.

Still, who Kathleen is--a Brown and a woman--works in her favor in a Democratic primary, whose electorate is weighted toward liberals and women. Garamendi can go as far to the right on crime as he wants, but he has to get through the Democratic primary first.

The bad news for Garamendi, should he survive the primary, is that he has to defend an actual record of votes on crime bills. Today, he demands the abolition of the inmates' bill of rights. As a lawmaker, he supported the legislation creating them. You can bet that Wilson's opposition research team is working overtime combing Garamendi's record for other "soft" votes on crime bills.

There also remains the question of how much faith Californians still waiting for their auto-insurance rebates will have in Garamendi's promises to deliver on crime. Or whether having been a member of the Legislature and a longtime Sacramento insider is too heavy political baggage for Garamendi to carry.

Wilson, of course, is not baggage-free. But how can he differentiate himself from his opponents as the "toughest" on crime if all the candidates continue to run, like lemmings to the sea, toward the hard-right on the issue?

Whether or not crime works for Wilson will come down to his perceived credibility--whether voters believe that he, as governor, has done anything, or can do anything, to curb crime. Fear of crime has definitely risen on his watch. Already, Democrats are asking voters, "Do you feel safer than you did three years ago?" The polls answer "no!' That's bad news Wilson can't ignore. On public-safety issues, like economics, the surly California electorate tends to have little patience with incumbents who haven't produced.

But will crime as an issue retain its resonance? Maybe not. Illegal immigration, once pegged to be the campaign issue, seemed for a while to lose its political luster. Wilson barely mentioned it in his State of the State Address. Now, the budget wars may revive it.

The economy, however, will continue to drive the election. Crime will remain important, but will rise and fall on the political agenda with the health of the economy, level of media hype, the harshness of politicians' rhetoric and the intensity of the public's fears.

One clear message surfaced in the tough rhetoric that flew through the state Capitol last week. To paraphrase Bette Davis, "Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy year!"

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