Brown’s death penalty stance used for political leverage again

Capital punishment has been the bane of the Brown family. As Jerry Brown seeks another stint as California governor, it could be decisive.

When the issue arose during Brown’s first debate with Republican foe Meg Whitman, he tried to massage it much as his sister, Kathleen, had done during her bid for the governorship in 1994. She acknowledged her opposition, but pledged, “I will faithfully carry out our law on executions, and I’ll do it with compassion, but I’ll do it with great fidelity to the rule of law.”

Both Browns’ opposition to capital punishment stems from their father, Pat Brown, who also opposed it, but oversaw 36 executions as governor.

The most celebrated case involved Caryl Chessman, Los Angeles’ notorious “Red Light Bandit.” His appeals exhausted after 12 years on death row, Chessman faced execution in 1960, but Pat Brown gave him a reprieve after hearing an anguished plea from son Jerry, then a 21-year-old college student.

Pat Brown asked legislators to suspend executions, but lawmakers refused. A few weeks later, Chessman was gassed. The elder Brown said later that the Chessman case “hurt me terribly” and was the beginning of his political downfall, which came in 1966 when voters rejected his bid for a third term.

Jerry Brown’s 1977 veto of a death penalty bill and his appointment of the overtly anti-capital punishment Rose Bird as the state’s chief justice haunted him as well, playing a major role in his losing a U.S. Senate bid to Republican Pete Wilson
in 1982.

Kathleen Brown enjoyed a big lead over then-Gov. Wilson when she began her 1994 run for the governorship, but Wilson hammered her on capital punishment and won in a landslide.

During this year’s first debate, Whitman (whose campaign chairman is Wilson), channeled the ad, saying, “Jerry has a long, 40-year record of being quite liberal on crime. It started with the appointment of Rose Bird, who was the [California] Supreme Court justice who tried to overturn the death penalty almost 64 times. She ultimately was recalled from office.”

Whitman hit Brown again on the issue in their third debate last week, implying she sees it as a late campaign weapon, a la 1994.

The 2010 gubernatorial race is more or less tied. With capital punishment still popular with voters and Whitman facing fallout from employing and firing an illegal immigrant, she’s playing the death penalty card that’s damaged Browns in years past.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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