For Gov. Gavin Newsom, there’s been an almost unprecedented mix of adulation and approbation for his bold moves granting reprieves to more than 700 inmates on California’s Death Row and ordering the state’s legal killing chamber dismantled.
From the left came huzzahs and expressions of admiration from folks who believe that because very occasionally an innocent person has been executed, no one should be, no matter how cruel, evil or heinous their crime, no matter how strongly the sentencing jury may have felt.
This school of thought has never been a majority preference in California, no matter how liberal its politics have become, although the margins by which capital punishment is favored are narrowing. Where Proposition 17 passed by a 2-1 margin in 1972, enshrining executions in the state constitution, 44 years later in 2016, the Proposition 62 measure aiming to end capital punishment lost by only a 52-48 percent margin. That was about the same edge by which voters passed Proposition 66 the same year, trying to speed up the legal process for executions.
So while death penalty advocates blasted Newsom’s reprieves as defying popular will, it’s clear popular will on this issue isn’t nearly as strong or singular as it was almost half a century ago.
Nevertheless, the electorate’s wishes were expressed and Newsom ignored them, despite campaign promises last year to be “accountable to the will of the voters.” He also asserted that “I would not put my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us…”
But Newsom has defied the will of California voters before and won. His short-lived 2004 order as mayor of San Francisco fostering same-sex marriages there clearly defied public sentiment around the state, as measured by the easy passage of the 2008 Proposition 8 that briefly banned gay unions. But Newsom won out in the end when courts all over America ruled same-sex marriage legal, such unions becoming almost routine today.
That sequence of events made Newsom a liberal icon and eventually sent him to the governor’s office.
But Newsom is far from alone in defying the public will, as expressed via its votes. The courts do it fairly regularly, on issues from public exposure to chemicals to the best-known example: the piecemeal legal dismantling of the 1994 anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, struck down one provision at a time over the five years after it passed, despite winning by about a 2-1 margin. The measure would have banned the undocumented from virtually all public benefits, from public schooling to emergency room care.
This spring it was state legislators led by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica attempting to overturn last fall’s public “no” vote on Proposition 10, which would have spread rent control to virtually all parts of the state. Bloom, however, withdrew his bid, without apology, when it went nowhere.
Meanwhile, a spate of bills hailed by Newsom would change the status quo on rents, which Proposition 10’s defeat left unchanged. There’s a bill to spread rent control to single-family homes and apartments more than 10 years old even in cities whose rent-control laws specifically exempt them. There’s one to ban what sponsoring Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco calls rent gouging and another aiming to limit evictions.
All this reopens the rent control debate a mere six months after it appeared resolved. As it turns out, virtually nothing was resolved.
Perhaps it’s one-party rule that makes officials from Newsom down to back-bench legislators feel empowered to scorn the clearly expressed public will. Democrats hold every statewide office and control both sides of the Legislature by margins of more than two-thirds. Who’s going to stop them when they want to counteract what the voters want?
They know the Republican label is so toxic today in most parts of California that merely defying or ignoring what the public wants will cost them nothing, and so they do it without hesitating.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net