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How Prospects for Prop. 66 Fell So Far, So Fast

Three-strikes revamp looked likely till Pete Wilson, the governor and a billionaire joined to defeat it.

November 07, 2004|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

The phone rang at midnight.

Jeff Randle, one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political consultants, was working in a hotel room near LAX on the night of Oct. 21 as he grabbed his cellphone. Who, Randle wondered, could be calling him at such an hour?

Pete Wilson was on the line. The former California governor had just clinched an agreement that, only 12 days before the election, would mean the collapse of Proposition 66, a measure to limit the state's three-strikes law.

Henry T. Nicholas III, an Orange County billionaire whose sister was slain in 1984, had just promised Wilson a donation of $1.5 million for the campaign to defeat the initiative. That money would allow its opponents to broadcast TV commercials for the first time.

"My message on that call was: OK, you've got the money, so let's go," Wilson recalled last week. "This was the cavalry coming over the ridge."

The day before Wilson's midnight call, Californians appeared ready to pass Proposition 66. A Times poll showed it leading 62%-21% among registered voters. Less than two weeks later, after a media blitz financed by Nicholas, Proposition 66 lost, with 53.2% of voters against it. A final tally will not be available until all absentee and provisional ballots are counted.

"We've seen steep declines before," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which recorded a 65%-18% lead for Proposition 66 in early October. "The very late-breaking nature of this decline, I think, is unprecedented."

The story of that turnaround highlights not only the power of money and the volatility of initiative politics, but also the continuing political partnership between the state's two most recent Republican governors.

On Oct. 22, the day after Wilson's call, Schwarzenegger made "No on 66" the top priority of his ballot measure campaigning. On Oct. 23, the governor spent the afternoon making TV advertisements opposing the initiative in a Los Angeles studio. Schwarzenegger also converted TV time he had bought to fight two gambling measures into time for "No on 66" ads.

"What I basically did was brought everyone together and said, 'Look, guys ... we've got to go and communicate to the people,' " Schwarzenegger said last week.

Schwarzenegger also said he had asked Wilson to get involved. Wilson campaigned for the original three-strikes initiative in 1994 and maintains long-standing relationships with law enforcement and crime victims groups. Those involved in the No on 66 campaign say he provided a crucial bridge to Nicholas, law enforcement groups and Schwarzenegger's political advisors, among them several one-time Wilson aides.

"We couldn't generate momentum until Gov. Wilson and Gov. Schwarzenegger became involved," said Ventura County Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, who has known Wilson for years.

"I was a nag," said Wilson, who downplays his work and credits Nicholas and Schwarzenegger with the No on 66 comeback. The anti-66 campaign had been kept alive since the spring by the California District Attorneys Assn. and the state prison guards union, which hired the campaign's political consultants and paid for focus groups.

Schwarzenegger agreed to oppose 66 and sign the official ballot argument against it in early summer. But until mid-October, the governor had focused his attention and political money on defeating two gambling measures, Propositions 68 and 70. No other major donors had stepped up to help the No on 66 campaign.

In early October, campaign manager Richard Temple told a meeting of district attorneys: "If we don't get up on TV, we'll lose." Solano County Dist. Atty. Dave Paulson and California District Attorneys Assn. executive director Dave LaBahn went to Randle's office shortly thereafter, the two men say, to plead for Schwarzenegger's help.

With 68 and 70 badly trailing, the governor's team debated whether to make the defeat of 66 its next priority, or focus more on two other ballot measures -- Propositions 64 and 72 -- of concern to the business community.

Schwarzenegger answered that question after attending a No on 66 news conference in Ontario on Oct. 20. The day did not begin auspiciously. Some local TV reporters who had been expected to attend the event were reassigned to cover a large Southern California rainstorm. No on 66 campaign aides gave the news media a DVD with a TV advertisement they had not found the money to air.

But the governor was visibly moved when he met victims of criminals who might have been released if 66 had passed. At the end of the event, he asked the victims to attend other public events for No on 66, according to one victim and an aide. He told political advisors he wanted to do more to help the campaign.

"It hit him in the heart," said Don Sipple, a strategist who makes the governor's ads.

The next night, Wilson got Nicholas on the phone. The No on 66 campaign had been asking Nicholas for money since September, but the founder of the semiconductor company Broadcom had been distracted by his search for a new chief executive.

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