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As Californians’ Stance on Crime Hardens, Republicans Try to Regain Relevance
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 1 month ago on
June 12, 2024

A security guard stands outside the heavily boarded Shreve & Co. jewelry store in San Francisco, Dec. 2, 2021. (AP File)

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Over the last dozen years, Democrats have gained, lost, and finally nailed down supermajorities in the California Legislature. Now they hold more than 75% of its 120 seats.

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Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Having achieved total control, Democratic leaders could — and did — completely ignore the dwindling numbers of Republican legislators, now just 18 in the 80-member Assembly and eight in the 40-seat Senate.

Republicans have been allowed to carry only minor pieces of legislation and are completely frozen out of budget negotiations, thanks to a 2010 ballot measure lowering the required budget vote to a simple majority, which Democrats and their labor union allies sponsored.

Last year, one Republican state senator, Shannon Grove, defied the odds by relentlessly pushing legislation to increase penalties on those who traffic in children.

After her bill was blocked in an Assembly committee, she raised a stink in the media about Democrats protecting sexual predators. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders felt the heat and the measure was resuscitated, passed and signed by Newsom.

Other Republicans took note, realizing that growing public concern about crime clashes with the Democratic Party’s aversion to putting more offenders behind bars by increasing criminal penalties.

Since 2010, pressure from federal courts to reduce overcrowding in state prisons has spawned two major ballot measures — Proposition 47 in 2014 and Proposition 57 two years later — which reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes. The Legislature has enacted other criminal justice reform legislation and the prison population has been cut nearly in half.

However street crimes, such as smash-and-grab raids on stores, home robberies and carjackings, have spiked. The public’s fear of crime has risen. Just before the 2022 elections, a Public Policy Institute of California poll confirmed public attitudes about crime were shifting.

“Californians’ perception of crime spiked during the pandemic — as did certain types of crime,” the PPIC found. “Nearly 2 in 3 Californians call violence and street crime in their local community a problem. This includes 31% who call them a big problem, a noticeable increase from February 2020 (24%).”

Law enforcement officials, with support from Republican political figures and some big city mayors, have qualified a ballot measure for next November’s election that would revise Prop. 47, one of the two prior measures that reduced criminal penalties.

The proposal seems to have political legs, even though voters rejected a 2020 ballot measure that would have shredded Prop. 47.

Legislative leaders, worried about a crime backlash, have fashioned a 14-bill package that would tighten up punishment for the most blatant offenses, such as organized looting of stores, and hope it would undermine the pending ballot measure.

This week, the leaders said they would amend their bills to automatically repeal them should the ballot measure pass. They said it would head off legal conflicts between their package and the ballot measure, but the amendments, dubbed “poison pills” by opponents, are obviously aimed at peeling off deep-pocket sponsors of the measure.

Leaders of both parties staged news conferences to trade insults and allegations of playing political games with the public’s concerns about crime.

If nothing else, the dustup indicates the Republicans may be down — way down — in terms of influence in the Capitol, but they’re not quite out. It also underscores an increasing role ballot measures may play as a way around the left-leaning policies of the Legislature’s Democratic supermajority.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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