Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado holds a news conference to voice opposition… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Abel Maldonado was a young Latino rancher and fresh-faced state lawmaker when he addressed the Republican National Convention in 2000 and was hailed as the GOP's future. Nine years later, he parlayed his deciding vote on tax increases into an appointment as lieutenant governor, albeit for a brief stay.
He lost a bid to remain in that job in 2010, and was defeated in a run for Congress last year. But he jumped back onto center stage this month with a brash campaign to repeal Gov. Jerry Brown's corrections policy known as realignment. The result of federal court orders to reduce prison crowding, the program keeps many low-level offenders in county jails rather than send them to state lockups.
Standing before news cameras at news conferences from San Diego to Redding, joined by victims-rights advocates and local politicians, Maldonado said Brown's "early release" policy and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have endangered the lives of all Californians.
"The bottom line is that, under Gov. Brown, if you commit a crime you do less time. It's just catch and release," said Maldonado, who has formed an exploratory committee for a gubernatorial bid. "Lives are at stake."
The logo of his Protect California Families campaign is the silhouette of a butcher knife, the brainchild of his top media advisor, Fred Davis.
"Abel Maldonado will not be governor if he runs a nice, little sweet campaign," Davis said.
With California expecting a budget surplus after years of financial crisis and Brown cultivating an image as the cheapest man in Sacramento, the Democratic governor will be difficult to beat if he runs for reelection, analysts say. But even with years of declining crime rates in California, crime is typically a bankable issue.
It cuts across class, income and racial lines, said Stanford political scientist Bill Whalen, who worked for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson when California voters overwhelmingly passed the "three strikes" law that cracked down on repeat felons.
Brown could be vulnerable on the prison issue, especially if "someone falls through the cracks" and it turns into a scandalous, high-profile crime case, Whalen said.
"If you don't attack Jerry Brown on crime, how do you attack him? You don't have a lot of alternatives," Whalen said.
Though still in its infancy, Maldonado's effort could garner him enough support to make it to the general election. Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks is also considering a run, and Orange County financial executive Neel Kashkari may be weighing a bid.
Maldonado's effort did not get off to a promising start.
When he launched the campaign in Sacramento, Maldonado stood next to a blown-up police mug shot of Jerome Anthony Rogers, a convicted sex offender accused of brutally murdering an elderly San Bernardino woman. But Rogers, an African American transient, had not been released from custody under Brown's new prison policies.
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the chairman of the state Democratic Party pounced on Maldonado for resorting to "Willie Horton-style" racial politics, a reference to the devastating, racially charged 1988 political attack ad against then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis that focused on a furloughed black convict in Massachusetts who raped a woman.
"Maldonado hasn't even officially declared [for governor], and already he's exhibited all the elements of a desperate campaign," said state Democratic Party spokesman Tenoch Flores.
A former political advisor to Brown also noted that Californians are much less concerned about crime today than they were 20 years ago. Last year, voters approved a statewide ballot measure to modify the three-strikes law to exempt those guilty of petty offenses, even though they rejected an initiative to abolish the death penalty.
But the 2014 gubernatorial election is far off.
"OK, so [Maldonado] comes out of the gate and stumbles a bit. His basic concerns about realignment are legitimate," said Michael Rushford, president of the conservative-leaning Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. "People know there's a problem. They're worried about it. They know, or will know, the policy has created a danger for them or their loved ones."
Brown and the Democratic legislative leadership had the option of building more prisons or shipping inmates to facilities out of state instead of adopting the controversial realignment policy, Rushford argues.
"It was their choice, and they had other priorities than increasing the capacity of our prisons," he said.
The governor's realignment program began in October 2011. Local law enforcement agencies complain that they are now overrun and forced to release inmates early when their jails are full.