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2005 battle over pit bulls revived for some dog lovers considering California's governor's race

2005 battle over pit bulls revived for some dog lovers considering California's governor's race
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks in San Francisco in 2005, when he was in the middle of a statewide debate over pit bulls. (Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

The race to be California's next governor has revived a 13-year-old debate over pit bulls.

Dawn Capp has started a small but growing campaign against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Facebook with the message that the Democratic front-runner "is bad for pit bulls."

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What actually happened is more complex.

Following a series of attacks in 2005, when Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, he asked the California Legislature to give cities more power to spay and neuter certain breeds of dogs.

After heated debate, the measure passed by wide margins and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Soon after, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in favor of mandatory spaying and neuturing for all pit bull terriers and mixes, and prohibited pit bull breeding.

Capp lives in Sacramento and has been rescuing pit bulls since 1997.

"It's the main reason why I'm not voting for him," said Capp, 45. "He's the reason why California has allowed this prejudice against pit bulls." A 2014 poll of 1,000 dog owners nationwide by Huffington Post and YouGov showed that pit bulls were considered less desirable and more dangerous than other breeds.

Capp has raised more than $900 and in six months gained more than 1,800 Facebook followers for her Pit Bulls Against Gavin Newsom campaign.

Newsom had been mayor for two years when 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish was killed by a pit bull, and an 8-year-old girl nearly died in another incident.

"People like pit bulls, but there's a reason we don't have polar bears or mountain lions in the city," Newsom told news outlets at the time. He also said after the attacks: "You've got dogs that literally can kill. We've seen it demonstrated."

At Newsom's request, then-state Sen. Jackie Speier drafted breed-specific legislation for pit bulls. Initially, Speier's SB 861 called for mandatory insurance and identity microchips for breeds perceived as dangerous. Speier, now a member of Congress, changed the law to require spaying and neuturing instead after constant pressure from protesters who felt the Democrat's initial draft was too harsh.

After the law passed nearly 13 years ago, multiple cities moved to adopt new rules. Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Newsom's top rivals in the June 5 gubernatorial primary, had just won Los Angeles' 2005 mayoral election at the time, but the issue didn't come up in L.A. until three years later.

Though the city does not have breed-specific legislation, Villaraigosa in 2008 signed an ordinance unrelated to the pit bull debate requiring all cats and dogs be spayed and neutered after the age of four months. The mayor said at the time that doing so would "help to humanely decrease the number of pets abandoned and euthanized each year."

Danielle Dulle, 54, of Napa said she is opposing Newsom for governor because of the issue. A dog owner since 1986, she said the blame for attacks should be on owners, not their dogs.

"We've got drug problems. We've got gang problems. Let's work on that," Dulle said in an interview. "Leave the animals alone. They're not hurting anybody."

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Capp plans to spend the money she has raised on Facebook ads. Her message has seemed to persuade at least one person so far.

"I was actually for Gavin, love many of his positions, but if he is still anti pit bulls then that is a deal breaker," John Ashfield of San Francisco wrote on the campaign's Facebook page.

Newsom's campaign appeared unconcerned about Capp's efforts.

"Gavin is a proud advocate for animals and the people who care for them, and he is the only candidate in this race to release a detailed animal welfare plan," said spokesman Nathan Click.

That plan, found on his website under a "California Values" headline, says Newsom "knows that dog breed-specific laws are ineffective at enhancing public safety and jeopardize the welfare of dogs identified as belonging to specific breeds."

When asked about the discrepancy between what Newsom did in 2005 and this policy, Click acknowledged that his boss had changed his position. Newsom now recognizes that breed-specific legislation doesn't work, Click said.

Such legislation against pit bulls was challenged or overturned in more than 150 cities from January 2012 to May 2014, according to the National Canine Research Council.

UPDATES:

4:41 p.m.: This article was updated with new information on the campaign's Facebook followers.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m., May 23.

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