For three straight days, in high-pressure debates among the Democratic candidates for governor, Kathleen Brown repeatedly refused to answer one compelling question: Why do you personally oppose the death penalty? Each and every time, the state treasurer turned the question around, saying that the only meaningful fact was that as governor she would enforce the sentence.
Brown's refusal to discuss the matter apparently stems from her feeling that if she elaborates, reporters and opponents will continue to press her for more details about her position--and remind voters that she disagrees with the majority of Californians on a traditionally important issue.
In her quest to change the subject, however, she has created an aura of mystery--or at least curiosity--that could be deflated simply by explaining her views.
Although she has refused to elaborate publicly, Brown has told The Times that part of her opposition is because of her religious beliefs and part stems from her view that capital punishment does not deter violent crime.
Last summer, in a series of extensive interviews, Brown illuminated some of her sentiments about capital punishment.
"The debate over it, in my judgment, is over," she said. "During the debate, if my voice, my opinion had been solicited, I personally don't think capital punishment works.
"But the people of the state and the courts of this land have upheld it and I think that is what the law is and we should move forward and move beyond capital punishment to figure out how in the world we can make the people of this city and the people of this state safer in their homes."
Asked Thursday whether she still believes that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime--and if that belief alone had led to her personal opposition--Brown said:
"Yes, it factors into it."
Pressed further about why she felt compelled to keep silent on her personal position, Brown put her opposition into a religious context.
"I have not been in the habit of discussing my personal religious beliefs or personal beliefs in the public arena, particularly when they are on matters that are settled, that are not matters for public debate," said Brown, who was raised as a Catholic. "There are a lot of other issues that are unsettled that I think the debate should center around."
It is in Brown's interest to keep the focus of the crime-fixated public away from the death penalty--where her stance could hurt her--and toward a broader discussion of personal security and fear. It is unlikely, however, that she can simply will capital punishment away. An opponent in the June 7 primary, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, and her potential November opponent, Gov. Pete Wilson, plan to make her beliefs an issue.
In fact, the death penalty may be prominent in Garamendi's last-ditch run of campaign ads, which are expected to begin airing this week.
"We think that her opposition to the death penalty is an important issue in this campaign and we certainly haven't finished talking about it," said Garamendi campaign manager Darry Sragow, who would not discuss the content of the upcoming commercials.
Waiting in the wings is Wilson, who has made toughness on crime a substantial component of all of his campaigns. His spokesman, Dan Schnur, called Brown's refusal to discuss her personal beliefs "cowardly."
"There are two points that need to be made here," he said. "First, the overwhelming majority of Californians flat out disagree with Kathleen Brown's position on the death penalty, so there is an ideological difference. Secondly, there is the spectacle of a candidate for governor being unwilling to discuss her personal feelings on an issue of such importance--and that speaks to that person's capabilities as a candidate, her courage and her ability to lead as governor."
Support for capital punishment has not been a tried-and-true litmus test for politicians; some--among them New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and former California Sen. Alan Cranston--have managed to win election after election while strongly opposing the death penalty.
Some political observers suggest that Brown's strategy is odd. They say that Brown has already paid whatever political price she will pay by confirming her personal opposition to capital punishment. It could hardly be more damaging if she explained herself, they say.
The strategy is particularly mystifying for Brown, who has been criticized for having few core beliefs and for waffling on the issues. This is one issue on which she has stuck to her guns--but she will have a hard time reminding voters of that if she refuses to explain her position.
Recent polls suggest the parameters of the political fallout about capital punishment--among both Democrats and the broader electorate. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted two years ago found that Democrats favored the death penalty, 66% to 28%. Among all voters, the ratio was 77% to 18%.
A Times poll taken last week indicated that Brown's position on the death penalty does indeed pose a political problem for her. In that survey, 14% of the Democrats who said they were unfavorably disposed to Brown cited the death penalty as the reason. Overall, counting all voters, 7% of those who did not like Brown cited the death penalty.
The Times has not asked voters this year about Brown's personal opposition to capital punishment and her concurrent pledge to enforce the law. But four years ago, when John K. Van de Kamp ran for governor with the same views, 24% of voters said they would be less likely to vote for Van de Kamp because of his personal opposition to capital punishment.
Asked hypothetically if they would switch their vote from a candidate less committed to the death penalty to one who was more committed, 16% said they would probably switch and 10% said they would certainly switch. The percentages were the same for Democrats and Republicans.
"The conventional wisdom by some is that the death penalty doesn't work as well in a Democratic primary, and to those people I will simply say 'Dianne Feinstein at the Democratic convention in 1990' and rest my case," said Garamendi's campaign manager Sragow, who was also a chief aide to Feinstein.
He was referring to Feinstein's appearance at a Democratic convention in Los Angeles, during which she advocated the death penalty and was booed by delegates. Her campaign, delirious that the delegates gave Feinstein a dramatic tool, ran footage from the incident in a campaign commercial shortly before she won the party's 1990 nomination for governor.
Brown is certainly no stranger to the political or personal implications of capital punishment.
Her father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., commuted 23 death sentences during his two terms, and sent another 36 men to the San Quentin death chamber. Like his daughter, he personally opposed capital punishment--so much so that he twice tried to have it banned.
Her brother, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., ardently opposed the death penalty. He appointed as Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, whose opposition to capital punishment led voters to throw her out of office in 1986.
The treasurer, however, has in her campaign emphasized other crime-fighting tools--her support for "three strikes" and truth-in-sentencing laws and for revoking the inmate bill of rights. She favors expanded sentences for violent criminals and says that nonviolent offenders should be placed in boot camps or drug treatment centers to keep pressure off the state's overloaded prison system.
In surveys taken throughout the gubernatorial campaign, Wilson has consistently been ranked better by voters than Brown on the issue of crime. But Brown continues to contend that he has allowed the state to become frighteningly unsafe. She made that point Thursday in Santa Fe Springs, when she accepted the endorsement of some law enforcement groups in a ceremony in front of a memorial to slain officers.
"I would say to the people of California who have heard four years of tough talk from Pete Wilson and 12 years of tough talk from Republican governors--I'd ask you the question whether you feel safer today than you did four years ago. Do you feel safer today than you did 12 years ago?" she asked.
"The answer is no. No, because our communities are experiencing an increase in random violence and more violence among juveniles."