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L.A. as death penalty capital belies California's political image

October 04, 2013|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • The hot tub, embodiment of California's laid-back lifestyle.
The hot tub, embodiment of California's laid-back lifestyle. (Susan Derby / Los Angeles…)

San Francisco — When Californians aren’t soaking in their hot tubs, spreading free love or engaging in other sybaritic activities, they’re harvesting their macrobiotic sprouts and medical marijuana and getting their auras adjusted.

As for politics, the state is blue as the Pacific and so far left it would fall off the edge of the continent if the ocean wasn’t there to buoy it up.

Or so, at least, much of the rest of the country perceives the Golden State and its kooky, sun-baked citizenry.

Like many caricatures, there is, at root, some truth to the cartoonish depiction. While hedonism is not the official state motto, the quality of life and pursuit of happiness is a much greater attractant in California than, say, North Dakota. (Sorry, Flickertailers!)

Politically, the state has indeed become a wasteland for Republicans, who gather in Anaheim for their convention this weekend in arguably their worst shape in years.

But both images belie much of the reality of California, a place with pockets as conservative as the Bible Belt, as isolated and economically hard off as Appalachia, as dutiful and working-class as any slice of the Midwestern Rust Belt.

True, the state is a blue bastion, but California voters have always had a streak of tightfistedness when it comes to taxes and spending.  It was California, home of Proposition 13, that gave birth to the tax-cutting movement that spread to Washington with the election of former Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Nor is Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently demonstrated fiscal conservatism the least bit new. The Democrat was wringing pennies from the state budget even back in the Moonbeam days, during his first two terms in the 1970s, when not off safariing with Linda Ronstadt.

Along with that firm hold on the purse strings, California voters have also had a hard nose when it comes to law and order. 

So it was less surprising than it might have seemed when it was reported this week that Los Angeles and three other Southern California counties lead the nation in sentencing convicts to die.

The data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington showed that Los Angeles County had 228 inmates on death row at the start of the year, more than double that of second-place Harris County, Texas  (the greater Houston area). Riverside, Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties also ranked in the top 12, as did Alameda and Sacramento counties. In all, seven of the top 12 were in California.

For years, support for the death penalty was practically mandatory for candidates of either major party who aspired to statewide office. Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, for instance -- who is nobody's idea of a moderate, much less conservative, lawmaker -- has been a longtime supporter of capital punishment.

There are signs the attitude may be changing. San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris was elected attorney general in 2012 as an avowed foe of capital punishment. She did, however sidestep the issue during the campaign by refusing to take a stand on Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would have abolished the death penalty and replaced it with a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. The measure failed 52% to 48%, close enough for advocates to talk about another try.

In the meantime, capital punishment remains the law in California, in word if not deed.

Texas actually carries out the death penalty far more often than any other state. The last execution took place in California in 2006. Since then, court rulings have blocked the procedure until the state comes up with a new lethal-injection method. Brown is siding with those urging the courts to resume executions.

His position — personal reservations about capital punishment but a public commitment to enforce the law — has seemed to play well with the California electorate, which, it turns out, is far more complex and less easily stereotyped than the state’s bag-o'-nuts image would suggest.

Laid-back doesn't necessarily mean lax.

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