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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Words to Live--and Lose Friends--By

October 03, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It was like ragging on your friends to a stranger, who has a big mouth. It's careless and dumb and--to use one of Kathleen Brown's words--raises questions of "principle."

Unfortunately for Treasurer Brown, some snide comments about Democratic allies to a magazine writer have become a defining moment in her campaign for governor. They likely defined her for many people as disloyal, insensitive and sanctimonious.

This is what she said, referring to her opposition to the death penalty:

". . . In politics it is important to have individuals of principle who don't just change to become politically correct. . . . I could have done what every politician in California has done. I could have changed my position like Dianne Feinstein did and Barbara Boxer did and Leo McCarthy did and Mel Levine did and Willie Brown did. Every single one of them changed their position to run for higher office. I couldn't do that the way I was raised. I was raised to believe that politics was also about principle. . . ."

Brown's comments were reported in the Sept. 10 issue of the National Journal and widely circulated last week by Gov. Pete Wilson and Rep. Mike Huffington, Feinstein's gleeful opponent. Brown blamed "Republican mischief," but she made the comments.

As Wilson's attack dog spokesman, Dan Schnur, put it: "Kathleen Brown has somehow managed to disparage the integrity of five of the leading Democrats in the state of California. I don't think I've ever been able to do that before."

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First of all, Brown was wrong about her friends.

Sen. Feinstein--regardless of Huffington's TV ads that Brown gave credence to--has embraced the death penalty for 25 years. She didn't run for statewide office until four years ago. In fact, she was hurt politically as a San Francisco supervisor by supporting capital punishment. The local Democratic Central Committee censured her.

"Getting out the word that Dianne Feinstein has supported the death penalty for 25 years isn't all that bad," her campaign manager, Kam Kuwata, now says. But initially he was puzzled and angered by Brown's comment. The senator didn't need this in a bruising reelection battle.

Later, Brown issued a statement acknowledging she had been "mistaken" about Feinstein. But she didn't offer any apologies for the other four Democrats.

Sen. Boxer and Lt. Gov. McCarthy, both also from San Francisco, began supporting the death penalty in 1985, saying they had been repulsed by heinous serial murders. McCarthy ran for reelection in 1986, then for the Senate in 1988. Boxer didn't run for the Senate until 1992. Neither did former Rep. Levine of Los Angeles, who became a death penalty supporter in the mid-1980s.

Assembly Speaker Brown never has run for higher office nor intended to. In fact, he has never voted for a death penalty bill, although he does favor the gas chamber for some "horrible, venal people. . . . There's no way you can justify that these cats ought not to be put to death."

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Secondly, what's the sin in changing your mind? In some fields that can be called growing in the job . In politics, there's this bugaboo about flip-flopping . Why is being close-minded so principled? After all, the citizenry does elect politicians to represent its views.

Many Californians--particularly women--have changed their minds about capital punishment in the last 30 years. "Women were somewhat ambivalent. Now they see themselves as victims and have become quite militant about the death penalty," says pollster Mervin Field. In the mid-1960s, only half the California public supported capital punishment; now three-fourths do.

Kathleen Brown's death penalty position is the same as her father's and brother's when they were governor: She's against it, but she'll enforce it because it's the law. But she never has really explained why she's against it, other than "my father taught me it was wrong and the religious experiences I had reinforced that."

Brown has reversed herself on other issues. She supported NAFTA until Labor Day, 1993, when she bowed to AFL-CIO pressure and announced her opposition, saying the treaty did not protect U.S. jobs. She opposed term limits when they were on the ballot in 1990, but this year has talked about their "positive results." As a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education in the late 1970s, she was on many sides of the hot busing issue.

Willie Brown assesses her magazine quotes this way: "Kathleen was doing what many of us as candidates do when we're facing bad times and the numbers don't seem right. . . . Your true abilities demonstrate themselves when you're looking at adversity. She just didn't take a deep breath."

If she had, she might also have said: "Off the record." Chalk it up to political inexperience.

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