Will the Father's Political Sins Visit the Daughter?

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

"My oath of office takes precedence over all else in my public life and actions." These were the words used by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., a staunch opponent of the death penalty, to explain why he let the execution of Caryl Chessman proceed. Thirty-four years later, his daughter, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, echoed her father's words in defending her opposition to capital punishment and pledging, nonetheless, to enforce the law. It was an overdue admission by Kathleen Brown that she now understands just how her handling of the death penalty may define her candidacy.

But Brown may have waited too long to elaborate on the reasons for her opposition to the death penalty. Months of skirting requests to explain her personal opposition to capital punishment may have cost her the image of strength and forthrightness that voters appear to want this year. More important, her reluctance to voice her beliefs publicly may have undercut her argument--that her opposition to the death penalty stems from strong moral and ethical convictions rooted in her Catholicism and in her father's influence. If her convictions are as strong as she asserts, why did she hesitate for so long? Is she sincere or is her explanation just another political gimmick?

Kathleen Brown has contended that the death-penalty issue is "a political smoke screen" used to avoid failed records. Not exactly. For voters, it's shorthand for "tough on crime."

The nominee's lack of an extensive record on which to run amplifies the threat the death penalty poses for her. The absence of a record can cut two ways. The advantage for Brown is that there is little policy history on which she can be attacked. The disadvantage is that, because there is so little else on which to judge her performance, the importance of her death-penalty stand becomes exaggerated in the scheme of things.

That's where shorthand becomes powerful. On this issue, as on her candidacy, Kathleen Brown offered up her own: her family heritage. That includes her father, who commuted nearly 40% of the death sentences put before him. And her brother, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who opposed the death penalty and who appointed Rose Bird as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The Bird court's reversal of 57 death sentences led to her ouster and that of two other Brown-appointed justices in 1986. Opposition to the death penalty may be the key issue on which Kathleen Brown and her brother agree. This is not helpful in California's current political climate.

Being a woman candidate at a time when crime remains the dominant campaign theme also carries political baggage. Not only do women candidates tend to fare less well with voters on this "masculine" issue; Brown's starting position--on the "wrong" side of death-penalty politics--compounds the weakness.

Recent internal Republican and Democratic polls may be picking up some of this weakness. They reportedly show Brown's GOP opponent, Gov. Pete Wilson, running about eight to 10 points ahead. It's still early, to be sure. But Wilson's political resurrection effort has a fair-sized nest egg with which to begin the run-up to November; a campaign that appears focused, and a virtually single-mindedly organized and tough former Marine for a candidate.

What can Brown do? Clearly, it is in her interest to move the campaign debate away from crime. With what issue? She's tried to use the economy. But that may not play, since polls show voters less anxious over the economy's future.

Second, trashing the state's economy may only serve to put Brown at loggerheads with her Democratic President and with her top-of-the-ticket running mate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is sustaining blistering attacks by her Republican challenger for her economic votes.

Such conflicting messages will further confuse voters and perhaps discourage die-hard Democratic contributors. That may be why Brown has already begun backing off, declaring that Bill Clinton has done more for the California economy than Wilson ever did.

Brown has another problem. Attempts to bury questions surrounding her death-penalty stance may give life to other politically dangerous questions. If her opposition to the death penalty is, in part, a consequence of her Catholicism, why aren't her views on abortion similarly influenced? Brown has sought to separate the two issues, telling reporters, "the death penalty is society's judgment about crime and punishment. The issue of abortion is the issue of individual choice and rights of privacy." But will voters buy such distinctions?

Furthermore, no matter how she handles these questions, Brown risks the appearance of flip-flopping. (Remember Feinstein's trenchant query of John Van de Kamp in the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary: How can you be for what you're against?) That can only add credibility to recurring charges that Brown is: a) "fuzzy"; b) lacking a core of defining beliefs; c) not tough enough to govern, and d) all of the above.

Perhaps the most intriguing question raised by Brown's attempt to explain her death-penalty stance is whether, in this state and at this political juncture, the Democratic nominee for California governor could ever come up with an explanation to satisfy voters--as long as her last name is Brown.

It was not Pat Brown's firm commitment to uphold California's death-penalty law that voters remembered. They reacted to his earlier stay of Chessman's sentence and failed call for a moratorium on capital punishment. Brown wrote, "even Democrats who had been staunch supporters now saw me as weak."

It was this "aura of weakness and vacillation," as Pat Brown described it, that helped do him in politically. He survived a strong challenge in 1962 from Richard M. Nixon, but was trounced in 1966 by Ronald Reagan, who challenged his toughness and death-penalty views.

There's a lesson in that for Kathleen Brown. Strong statements and responses can be undermined by the waffling and the shading that precede them. In politics, the image that sticks is the image that counts. And Kathleen Brown may have waited too long--and done too little--to define herself as anything but her father's daughter and her brother's sister, wrongly positioned on an issue of crucial concern to voters this election year.

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