Prop. 66 in Tough Fight

Times Staff Writers

The fight over proposed changes to the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law remained furious going into the final day of the campaign -- with both sides launching last-minute ads today.

Proposition 66 would amend the law to allow a life sentence only if a person is convicted of a third felony that is violent or serious. It would remove eight crimes from the violent or serious category and would toughen sentences for some crimes against children.

In the final days of the campaign, it has emerged as the toughest fight on the state’s lengthy ballot. The proposition had been well ahead in polls until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed by Henry T. Nicholas III, one of the state’s richest men, began an intense effort one week ago to defeat it.


A Field Poll released Saturday indicated that the campaign has had a major impact. The poll was taken over seven days, ending on the day Schwarzenegger’s ads began airing. Likely voters interviewed in the first four days favored the proposition 58% to 34%. Those interviewed over the following three days, which included the Wednesday launch of the ads, were split, 48% to 47%. The samples had a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

Schwarzenegger went into the fall saying he would focus on a few state legislative races and just a handful of measures on the ballot -- principally Propositions 68 and 70, two measures related to gambling, both of which he opposes. But in the final weeks, he has taken on additional tasks, including opposition to Proposition 66.

At times, as he campaigned around the state Sunday, even he seemed flummoxed by the range of issues that he had taken on, resorting to using flashcards and posters to instruct the crowds: Vote “yes” on Propositions 1A, 59, 64 and 69, but “no” on 63, 66, 67, 68, 70 and 72.

Schwarzenegger ended up telling people just to look at his website and a voter guide he mailed statewide for extra measure. “Everyone is confused,” he said after a rally in this Northern California city just south of Lake Shasta. “The smartest people, not just people that don’t know about politics. Smart people are confused.”

In Alameda County, Schwarzenegger initially forgot to urge voters to support Assemblyman Guy Houston (R-Livermore), who is in a tight race to hold onto his seat. It was only after the governor ended his speech and had spent several minutes shaking hands with supporters that he returned to the podium to urge support for Houston.

Another candidate who received short shrift was President Bush, whom Schwarzenegger barely mentioned at his events, opting instead to joke about how, like Bush, he constantly is forced to debate “a liberal Kennedy Democrat” -- a reference to his wife, Maria Shriver.


Staff members tried to keep the events focused on Schwarzenegger’s message.

At the rally here, a man in a wheelchair showed up wearing a T-shirt that used an epithet to denounce Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry. He was given a “Join Arnold” T-shirt to wear instead and was gently told his own T-shirt would come across as too negative. The man kept the Arnold T-shirt in his lap.

Another man stormed out of a rally in Pleasanton before it began and urged others to do the same. “This isn’t a Bush rally,” he warned people as they filed into the hall.

Although some Republicans say Schwarzenegger has not done enough to support Bush, backers of Proposition 66 say he has gone overboard in his attacks on the ballot measure. They accuse him of misleading voters. Television commercials warn Californians that if the ballot measure passes, “26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison.”

A heated dispute has raged over how many prisoners would qualify for resentencing under Proposition 66, but Schwarzenegger’s flat statement that 26,000 would be released exaggerates the potential impact. Under the ballot measure, many prisoners sentenced under the three-strikes law would be eligible to have a hearing on a new sentence.

Prosecutors say 26,000 inmates are eligible. Supporters of Proposition 66 say the number of eligible inmates is 4,200. None, however, would be released automatically, and some of those who are eligible would still have time to serve on their sentences or would open themselves to trial on new charges if they asked for a rehearing.

Supporters of Proposition 66 hope that a new ad airing today will counter Schwarzenegger’s influence. The 30-second commercial shows items such as a bottle of baby formula, superimposed with a $1-million price tag.

“Would you spend a million dollars for a sweater? How about a bottle of baby formula ... or some AA batteries?” asks an announcer, who then tells viewers that the $1-million figure represents the overall cost of the lengthy sentences given to inmates serving time for stealing such items.

At the same time, Nicholas, the founder of the technology company Broadcom, continued to pour millions into his self-described eleventh-hour attempt to kill the ballot measure. Over the weekend, he taped radio commercials and telephone messages with former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the heavy-metal band Korn.

Nicholas, whose sister was murdered by her boyfriend in 1984, said he spent another $1.5 million over the weekend to fight the initiative, bringing his total over the last week to $3 million. In a telephone interview Sunday, Nicholas said he believes the three-strikes law needs to be changed, but believes Proposition 66 is the wrong way to do it.

“If we manage to beat this thing and someone can show me a person whose sentence is unjust, I will take up their cause personally to get them out of prison,” he said.

Christopher Calhoun, a spokesman for the “Yes on 66” campaign, conceded that what he described as “a last-minute blitz of misinformation” by Schwarzenegger and others was causing support for the measure to decline.

On most other matters, however, most voters seem now to have made up their minds. At Sunday’s rallies, many people said they had decided how they were going to vote and had come to see the governor. “I wanted to see him up close,” said Jay Ruuska, 37, of San Leandro.

This week ends more than a year of nearly constant campaigning by Schwarzenegger. Whisked around the state in a Gulfstream jet, Schwarzenegger arrived Sunday at the same Redding airport where he rallied Californians to elect him in the 2003 recall.

Today he plans a final day of campaigning that will take him from Marina del Rey to San Diego, Fresno, Stockton, Monterey and Goleta.

Meanwhile, embracing a theme reminiscent of Yogi Berra’s famous observation that “It ain’t over till it’s over,” incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer warned supporters in San Jose that her comfortable lead in the polls is meaningless “if you don’t cash it in” on election day.

“Don’t take it for granted just because someone says ‘I think I’m going to vote.’ Say, ‘Promise me -- I’ll give you a ride to the polls,’ ” Boxer told about 200 people gathered in a temporary campaign office in the Silicon Valley.

In Pasadena, her Republican opponent, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, spoke briefly during an afternoon service at the New Revelation Missionary Baptist Church.

Jones, a Baptist and friend of the church’s pastor, William Turner Jr., refrained from criticizing Boxer, instead emphasizing what he described as his excitement regarding the high voter turnout expected Tuesday.

“This election is about an opportunity to practice what we preach, which is to make our voice heard no matter who we vote for,” Jones said. “It’s because we do this and do this together that the day after the election there won’t be Republicans or Democrats, there will be Americans.”

As the campaign drew to a close, a new Field Poll released Sunday showed:

* Californians favored Proposition 71, a $3-billion bond measure for stem cell research, by a wide margin. The poll found 72% of Democrats backed the idea while 61% of Republicans opposed it.

* A ballot initiative to provide workers with health insurance trailed 42% to 41%, with 17% undecided. Proposition 72 would implement a law passed last year by the state Legislature to require employers with 50 or more workers to provide health coverage for employees who work more than 100 hours a month.

* Likely voters were issuing a mixed verdict on two measures that would impose new taxes to support healthcare. Proposition 63, a measure to impose a 1% income tax surcharge on incomes over $1 million a year, had a substantial lead, 56% to 31%. But Proposition 67, which would add a surcharge to telephone bills to fund emergency services, was behind, 50% to 37%.


Times staff writers Evan Halper in Pleasanton, Daniel Hernandez in Los Angeles and Scott Martelle in San Jose contributed to this report.