Governor Makes Pitch for Underdog

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hit the campaign trail Wednesday, traveling here to support an underdog Assembly candidate after venturing in the rain to Ontario to call for the defeat of a ballot measure.

In Fresno, the governor threw his considerable political influence behind a relative unknown, Republican Paul Betancourt, who is vying for an open Assembly seat in the heart of the state's farm country.

"The more Republican assemblymen and women, the more senators I have up in Sacramento, the more support I have around me and the more we can aggressively move forward to create the reforms that we want," he told about 200 people.

Betancourt is facing Fresno County Supervisor Juan Arambula, a Democrat who was considered a favorite in the race. But in the last few weeks, Republican Party leaders from throughout the state have contributed heavily to Betancourt's campaign, helping him amass a war chest of at least $400,000.

Schwarzenegger called the longtime cotton farmer a strong supporter of education and prison reform.

Earlier in the day, the governor slogged through heavy rain to appear with crime victims and law enforcement officials in Riverside County to oppose Proposition 66, a measure the governor said would be a "cruel assault" on the state's three-strikes law.

The governor has long opposed two casino gambling measures on the Nov. 2 ballot, but Wednesday marked the first time that he has campaigned against other measures.

In the final two weeks of what he called his "campaign month," Schwarzenegger spoke out against Proposition 66 at a news conference in Ontario before traveling to Corona for a private fundraiser to benefit his "California Recovery Team" campaign committee.

The governor also said a voter's guide listing his position on several measures would soon appear in the mailboxes of 5 million voters. The Republican Party paid $2 million to produce the 12-page glossy mailer, hoping that Schwarzenegger's opinions will sway voters.

"We all know that if Proposition 66 passes, criminals will get out of jail and they will be roaming our streets and our neighborhoods and our state will be unsafe again," the governor said.

Schwarzenegger's efforts to defeat Proposition 66 may be his toughest challenge of the campaign season.

A Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday indicated that Proposition 66 was leading among likely voters by a 3-1 margin. Schwarzenegger's staff and law enforcement officials concede that defeating the measure will be a daunting task, given that opponents have yet to launch a paid media campaign.

But the governor remained upbeat, saying that he trusts voters to make the right decision. "It's all a matter of how much information you give the people," he said.

Asked why he did not campaign sooner against the measure, Schwarzenegger said he has been busy fighting Propositions 68 and 70, the casino gambling measures.

"I can't spread myself too thin," he said. But he added that defeating Proposition 66 was a top priority.

Passed in 1994, the three-strikes law allows judges to impose life sentences on repeat criminals who are convicted of at least three felonies. At the time, the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas helped generate support for the measure.

Proposition 66 would change the law to require that the third conviction be for a serious or violent felony.

Opponents of the measure contend that the proposition would lead to the release of up to 26,000 criminals who had been convicted of lesser felonies -- a contention that supporters of the measure rebut.

Celia Alario, a spokeswoman for Yes on 66, said the number of criminals who could gain release is between 4,000 and 7,000.

Alario said the claims made by Schwarzenegger and others are "scare tactics." She said Proposition 66 would restore the original intent of the three-strikes law by ensuring that only criminals who commit serious and violent crimes receive sentences of 25 years to life.

Displayed next to the governor were five large photos of convicted criminals, their scowling mug shots carrying descriptions such as "pathological sadist" and "serial child molester."

Schwarzenegger and several law enforcement officials also criticized Jerry Keenan, an insurance company owner who has contributed $1.9 million to the pro-Proposition 66 campaign.

Keenan's son, Richard, is serving eight years in Folsom prison for crashing his Lexus while intoxicated -- an accident that killed two passengers, Marsha Runyon and Thaddeus Czuprynski, and injured a third.

Richard Keenan was 21 at the time of the accident and driving on a suspended license. Under the current three-strikes law, he must serve 85% of his sentence before being considered for parole.

Whether he would get out of prison early if Proposition 66 passes has been the subject of considerable debate. Law enforcement officials said Keenan could be eligible for parole as early as the end of this year if the law is changed.

"You shouldn't be able to buy some guy's freedom," Schwarzenegger said, referring to Keenan.

Jerry Keenan and other supporters of the proposition, however, said that it probably would not apply to his son's case.

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Martin reported from Ontario, and Arax from Fresno.

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