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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A History Lesson for Lungren on the Death Penalty

October 22, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The year was 1977 and the biggest story in Sacramento was the death penalty. Would the Legislature pass a bill to restore capital punishment? Would Gov. Jerry Brown veto the bill? Would the Legislature override his veto?

The answers were yes, yes and yes--just as Brown privately wished. He played it beautifully and his moves back then have relevance in the present race for governor. I'll get to that later.

First, remember that Brown in 1977 was at his apex--popular, powerful and entertaining. He could make things happen in the Capitol.

Yes, Brown was morally opposed to the death penalty. And yes, the liberal governor was politically aware that he needed to have capital punishment restored before he ran for reelection the next year. The state Supreme Court had struck down California's death penalty, and if a new law was not in place by 1978, it would give his Republican opponent a huge issue.

Brown's conscience wouldn't allow him to sign a death penalty bill. But his politics wouldn't allow him to block one either. So he chose to let political nature take its course. Californians favored the death penalty by 2 to 1 and legislators instinctively would restore it if the governor kept his hands off. And that's what he did.

Brown vetoed the bill--authored by then-Sen. George Deukmejian, his potential successor--and the Legislature overrode the veto. They couldn't override it fast enough in Brown's mind. He wanted rid of the issue.

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At least, that's what I've always been told by knowledgeable pols, who didn't want to spell it out quite that cynically for the record.

And it's pretty close to what I and another Times reporter, Jerry Gillam, wrote soon after Brown vetoed the bill. The story was headlined: "Brown Takes Neutral Stand on Death Penalty Override."

This now is relevant because Brown's chief of staff was Gray Davis, the present Democratic candidate for governor. And the Republican candidate, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, is airing a TV ad with a cockamamie charge that "Gray Davis even lobbied against the death penalty."

I wouldn't care so much--just shrug it off as another cheap political distortion--except it's my story being distorted. When Lungren first began peddling the accusation last summer, I asked for proof. The proof his strategist handed me, to my amazement, was my old story. But, I noted, that story said Brown and Davis were not lobbying against the death penalty. The staffer just mumbled and walked off.

Then a few days ago, the ad began running. And the backup material that Lungren's spinmeisters provided reporters cited my story as the prime source, selectively quoting Davis as telling legislators: "Search your conscience. . . . For those looking for guidance or still in doubt, we would urge a 'no' vote on the override."

Well, here's the full Davis quote from the story, based on my interview with him:

"If there is a message [to legislators], it is: 'Search your conscience and your constituency and make the best judgment you can.' For those legislators looking for guidance or still in doubt, we would urge a 'no' vote on the override.

"But we certainly respect the right of a legislator to search his conscience and come to a different conclusion than the governor. The governor relied on his own conscience. And if any legislator indicates that his conscience dictates that he should vote for imposition of the death penalty, we certainly will not ask him to change his view."

In other words, go do what you want.

The story further quoted key legislators as saying they had never been contacted by the governor's office about the death penalty. One even speculated that Brown was playing reelection politics.

In the story, I wrote that Republicans "appear to be clinging as long as possible to the [death penalty] issue." Decades go by and some things never change.

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"Jerry Brown instructed all of his staff not to lobby a single legislator," Davis told me recently. "He acted out of conscience and he expected the legislators to act out of conscience. If they asked for advice, obviously we'd tell them to support the governor's veto. But that was hypothetical. I don't remember ever actually having that conversation with anyone but you."

Neither does any legislator I've talked to from that era.

"I certainly never received any calls," says Leo McCarthy, who was then the Assembly speaker and now is an international business consultant. "If Jerry Brown were trying to stop the veto override, he would have spoken with me. And I don't recall Gray ever giving an opinion one way or the other."

Davis supported the death penalty, then and now. That's a fact Lungren just can't seem to accept.

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