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Death Penalty and the New Shade of Brown : California: It's time to give an honest explanation for an unpopular, 'pro-life' stand.

January 31, 1994|JOE SCOTT | Joe Scott, a Los Angeles-based political consultant, is not involved in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. and

In her bid to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in June, Kathleen Brown should listen to Thomas P. O'Neill III. Eulogizing his father, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, O'Neill the Younger refined his father's famous line about all politics being local. It should be, Tommy O'Neill said, "all politics is personal."

Tip O'Neill took his cue on Vietnam from his children and their contemporaries, and on Nicaragua from his elderly aunt, a Maryknoll nun. And that, noted the columnist Mary McGrory, should "give heart to politicians who do not trust their instincts and do not dare to be themselves."

The idea of making politics personal in the California gubernatorial campaign offers a courageous option for Brown: She can trust her own instincts and tell us why she opposes the death penalty.

Called by her father, former Gov. Pat Brown, "the best politician in the family," Kathleen Brown has in the past used the too-clever phrase "a different shade of Brown" to define herself. Stressing themes like the economy, education, crime and violence, the state treasurer faces a bitter battle to become the third member of one prominent Irish Catholic political family, after her father and brother, Jerry Brown, to govern the nation's largest state.

But her equivocal position on the death penalty--she opposes it, but would enforce the statutes--has emerged as the defining issue in the nascent campaign. Brown's adamant refusal to discuss the reasons for her opposition is widely viewed in both parties as a potentially fatal mistake.

Without an explanation, one can only assume that Brown's opposition is based on religious conviction, unspoken out of fear of emotional voter reprisal for daring to be politically incorrect on a moral issue.

Sensing this, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, Brown's chief Democratic rival, call her weak on crime. This concerted effort to destabilize her will get an unintended assist with the debut of Jerry Brown's syndicated radio talk show--yet another effort by the perennial presidential candidate to reinvent himself, this time as the Rush Limbaugh of the left. Jerry Brown, a magnet for media attention, is likely to upstage his sister and confuse voters about her more pragmatic views.

Kathleen Brown may believe that because she has skated with impunity on the issue of abortion--she opposes it but favors a woman's legal right to choose--she is immune from interrogation on opposing the death penalty, another right-to-life issue. But the escalating rhetoric and persistent questions suggest that a stonewall defense is no longer an option.

To move on to more substantive issues, Brown needs to deal openly with the death penalty. Perhaps she could explain that respect for the dignity of each created human must be the basis for any discussion of victims or of the condemned.

Such an unexpected "pro-life" speech would, as a minimum, stun both law-and-order conservatives and "pro-choice" voters. And it may be hard for Brown's critics to attack her premise or argue with a woman on a matter of personal conscience. The question is whether Brown has the courage to take her cue.

The fault with our politics is this: Hypnotized by consultants determined to win the "game" at any cost, candidates pander to the passions of the moment on issues like the death penalty, abortion and immigration. They are terrified to trust their hearts and souls on the dignity of life.

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