Capital Intensive

Is small-donor activism the difference in California’s death penalty debate?

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An inmate at what was San Quentin’s Death Row greets the morning. Credit: Tom Gogola

Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment via executive fiat in March, will California voters end the death penalty in 2020? New research from the National Institute on Money in Politics indicates that, absent a robust grassroots anti–death penalty effort, it could be a tough sell.

That’s owing to the power and influence—and infrastructure—of statewide unions such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, whose small-donor efforts in 2016 helped turn the public opinion tables on a capital-punishment proposition twofer on that ballot that year.

Proposition 62 would have ended the death penalty outright; while pro-death penalty Proposition 66 sought to limit appeals in capital cases.

The institute’s research found that even as the state was trending away from support for the death penalty, that pro–death penalty, 62/66-specific committees outspent opponents’ committees by $13.5 million to $9.7 million in 2016.

That year, “corrections officers represented the overwhelming majority of small donors rallying behind the death penalty,” reports the institute’s online research portal, followthemoney.com, adding that “thirty-five public sector unions collectively gave $3.3 million to the pro-death-penalty effort. . . . Almost half ($1.6 million) of the union total came from contributions from CCPOA and the Peace Officers Research Association of California.”

Twenty-eight-thousand CCPOA members contributed $287 each to 62/66-specific committees. Small-donor anti-death penalty contributions were not nearly so robust, as the institute reports that “more than four-fifths of the anti-death-penalty total ($7.9 million) came from just 35 donors that gave $50,000 or more.”

Contributions from opponents were made by George Soros’s Open Society Policy Center ($1 million), Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective ($600,000), “and more than $450,000 from the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The report further noted that Stanford professor Nick McKeown gave $1.5 million, “a 91 percent share of the total from education donors,” while Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings contributed $1 million of $1.2 million that came from the TV and film industry. Lastly, it found that five people (including Tom Steyer) “accounted for more than 80 percent of $1.1 million from securities and investment donors.”

Small-donor contributions from 1,700 opponents totaled $377,000, reports the institute as it recounted the run-up to the 2016 election. That year, opponents contributed an average of $4,750 to the committees; proponents of the death penalty contributed an average of $470.

The Sacramento Bee reported that polling to date indicated that a plurality of voters supported Prop 62, while only a third of voters supported Prop 66.

It cited a joint study from the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, that “found Proposition 62 ahead 48 to 37 percent, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided. Meanwhile, barely a third (35 percent) support Proposition 66, a competing initiative aimed at expediting the death-penalty process. With 42 percent undecided, it appears far less familiar to voters. Twenty-three percent are opposed.”

Then came a CCPOA-led advertising blitz that raised public awareness of the initiatives. “In the end, 53 percent of voters rejected Proposition 62 and 51 percent okayed Proposition 66,” notes the institute.

The institute noted that a “cursory examination of fundraising in the Proposition 62 and 66 campaigns can be misleading,” given the influence of four multi-issue committees formed that year. Earlier news reports suggested that death penalty opponents had raised $18.1 million in the losing battle over the competing propositions, “25 percent more than death-penalty proponents raised.” The Fund for Policy Reform, for example, “reported $6.1 million in contributions and was among the top fundraisers backing Proposition 64,” California’s weed-legalization measure.

In making his announcement this spring, Newsom highlighted that the death penalty discriminates against minorities and poor people as he called the practice “ineffective, irreversible and immoral.” He pledged to give a reprieve to the 737 inmates currently on death row in California, close the death chamber at San Quentin (it was dismantled soon after his announcement), and end a years-long debate over the state’s execution protocols in the bargain.

Most of the 737 condemned in California are men held in one of three death row tiers at San Quentin. Women on death row are incarcerated at a facility in Chowchilla. The last execution in California took place 13 years ago.

As Newsom was making his announcement, Marin Assemblyman Marc Levine introduced a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would ban the death penalty. Opponents to Newsom’s moratorium and the Levine push have already ramped up the grassroots activism in light of the renewed push to end capital punishment in the state.

Families of crime victims and local district attorneys have embarked on a “Victims of Murder Justice Tour.” In April NBC Los Angeles reported that the organization (founded by the Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer) would take the tour to each of the 80 Assembly and 40 Senate districts in the state.

Death Penalty Focus, a California nonprofit devoted to ending capital punishment in the state through public education and grassroots organizing, was unsurprisingly supportive of Newsom’s March move. “As it stands right now, it’s a bit premature to speculate about an initiative in 2020,” says DPF senior advocacy director David Crawford, “although the moratorium does raise questions about the movement’s endgame and whether the moment is right. My organization has many priorities at the moment, including public education, lifting up the voices of impacted communities like victims’ families and the wrongfully convicted, fostering new alliances with other criminal justice reform movements, and advocacy efforts at the local level. We rely on ‘small’ contributions from a broad base of donors to carry out this type work, along with some funding from foundations and what nonprofits refer to as ‘major gifts’.”

Meanwhile, even as district attorneys and victims’ families have accused Newsom of thwarting the 2016 will of the voters, recent polling suggests that Californians favor life-without-parole over execution in first-degree murder cases, by a two-to-one ratio.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted two weeks after Newsom’s announcement found that 62 percent of voters “chose life in prison over the death penalty,” reported Death Penalty Focus. That could bode well for a future anti–death penalty campaign. “If a future campaign were to take place, it would need to build on the successful aspects of the last campaign’s fundraising strategy,” says Crawford, “while finding additional ways to raise money. Public figures play a big role in spreading the word about the issues at the heart of a campaign, and perhaps the governor’s bold stance might facilitate additional ‘small-donor’ contributions.”

Fire Report

The light rain was welcome in parts of the region as California commemorated the six-month mark since the Camp Fire broke out onlast Nov.ember 8. The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history destroyed 18,000, structures in Butte County, killed 85 people, and caused an estimated $16 billion in damage.

The rains have been plentiful this year, and April was a below-average month for fires, the National Interagency Fire Center reported on May 1. Their latest predictive survey suggests that California is just a couple of weeks away from fire season: “By late May and early June, California . . . will see an increase in activity as fine fuels dry and cure,” it reports.

Marin’s been stepping up its fire-prevention game in a big way. In April the county announced an enhanced partnership between Marin County Parks and the Marin County Fire Department that would provide $2.32 million over two years for 14 wildland firefighters who will cut, chip, remove and burn hazardous vegetation in county parks.

The funding push is part of a larger ongoing effort in Marin County prompted by the 2017 Sonoma and Napa wildfires. Along with enhanced efforts at emergency notifications, evacuations and, home-safety improvements, the county also launched its community-based “Firewise” initiative, a kind of neighborhood watch program for fire-prevention; 33 such communities have formed up since the program was announced last year. The state has identified numerous areas at high risk of fire around the county—from Inverness to Novato to the Mt. Tamalpais watershed.

—Tom Gogola

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