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Lockyer Is Accused of Stacking Deck Against Initiatives

Times Staff Writer

In the months since Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer declined to run for governor -- citing the “obscene” divisiveness of politics -- he has found time to take his 2-year-old son to Disneyland and devour the gothic thriller “The Shadow of the Wind.”

But his surprising April announcement has not removed Lockyer from the world of divisive politics.

The Democratic attorney general has become, in fact, a major pain to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans and conservative activists who have been pushing their agendas in the November special election and beyond.

Lockyer -- who under state law is required to review voter initiatives -- has prompted complaints about what Republicans see as a liberal bias in his actions on four initiative efforts this year.

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In the most recent case, a judge ordered a Schwarzenegger-backed redistricting measure off the ballot after Lockyer sued over a procedural flaw. His actions also have prompted the governor to delay his planned overhaul of the pension system for public employees and spurred the threat of another lawsuit by backers of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.

In accusing him of bias, Republicans say Lockyer all but conceded the point last week by agreeing to rewrite a legal summary of the governor’s budget spending cap initiative. GOP lawyers had complained that Lockyer’s original summary of Proposition 76 contained errors and misrepresentations.

Lockyer said he is just doing his job: giving factual information to voters, enforcing the law and removing “propaganda” from the initiative process.

His critics aren’t convinced. Solidifying their view of Lockyer as a liberal crusader, conservative activists have organized protests against an art exhibit in the cafeteria of the Department of Justice building in downtown Sacramento. The display features a cartoonish painting of the United States heading down a toilet because of President Bush.

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California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim accused Lockyer of exercising bad judgment this year, especially for telling a Democratic convention four months ago that he had “significantly contributed” to the political heat on Schwarzenegger.

“I was a practicing attorney for 23 years, and it’s really very surprising to see the conduct that clearly has a partisan tinge,” Sundheim said. “But what is really more than remarkable to me is that he took credit for it.”

A longtime Bay Area politician and former leader of the state Senate, 64-year-old Lockyer has undergone something of a personal transformation in recent years, spurred by his marriage in 2003 to Nadia Maria Davis, the former president of the Santa Ana school board, and the birth of their son, Diego.

Earlier this year, Lockyer rejected a campaign for governor and decided to run for state treasurer instead. He said that freeing himself from the pressures of constant fundraising has allowed him to prepare for his first-ever arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, in December, and spend more time with his family.

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“Having a new baby, I think he looked about with a different perspective on how he wanted to spend his time,” said Bill Carrick, Lockyer’s longtime political consultant.

But Lockyer’s critics say he is using his office to play games with Schwarzenegger and conservative activists. Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the state GOP, said Lockyer is trying to appease Democrats after he admitted that he voted for Schwarzenegger in 2003.

Political analysts said Lockyer -- unlike Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, both Democratic candidates for governor -- can more freely challenge Schwarzenegger without being accused of playing electoral politics.

“He has the luxury of not running against the governor, so he can serve as the outside liberal voice in a way that neither Angelides nor Westly can,” said Barbara O’Conner, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento who specializes in political communications. “There is almost the lover scorned: ‘I voted for you and you disappointed me, and here I am holding your feet to the fire.’ ”

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Carrick said declining to run for governor “does give him more freedom” to make independent decisions. He cited Lockyer’s willingness to soften his analysis of the governor’s spending cap: “I think he would have made the same decision, but the political pressures on him would have been enormous,” primarily from fellow Democrats who wanted to keep the heat on the governor.

For his part, Lockyer said the large number of divisive issues this year has led to heightened political tensions that he did not create. He said some activists get upset when his office highlights controversial but important aspects of initiatives that supporters would rather downplay.

“We don’t have a political agenda,” said Lockyer, who oversees a 5,000-person office that is the chief enforcer of California law. “The only instruction I have given the professional staff is to get it right: Be accurate and fair, and help voters understand what a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ vote means.”

Lockyer said he frequently gets political pressure to change initiatives and isn’t surprised that he is involved in several legal fights. He joked: “I’ve got 1,100 lawyers. I don’t mind being sued.”

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As the state’s chief attorney, Lockyer is required to write 100-word summaries and official titles for initiatives. Those synopses, which must be factual and free from bias, are considered important because they carry the imprimatur of the attorney general. Voters often rely on them in making decisions.

Lockyer has repeatedly said his professional staff does the legal analysis for initiatives and that he has little influence on how they come out. He said he has yet to change a single word of an initiative title and summary, although he will ask questions if something is unclear.

But Peter Siggins, Schwarzenegger’s chief attorney, said the process with Lockyer was a little more complex. Siggins comes with a unique perspective; he served as a top-level deputy to Lockyer for five years before he started working for Schwarzenegger.

Lockyer “asked question and would make suggestions,” Siggins said. “But if you are deputy A.G., or even chief deputy A.G. like me, and the attorney general has a suggestion or a question, then you try to discern his policy perspective and you try to give life to that.”

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Amid complaints about his handling of various initiatives, conservative talk radio hosts and other activists have been upset because of the toilet painting, one of 30 works by lawyer-artists on display in Lockyer’s office until Aug 31.

The controversial painting was done by Stephen Pearcy, a lawyer who prompted outrage earlier this year by hanging an effigy of an American soldier outside his home in a middle-class Sacramento neighborhood. The effigy carried a sign that read, “Bush lied, I died.” He received death threats.

The new work -- done with latex house paint on a leftover piece of plasterboard -- shows a map of the U.S. inside a toilet, with the words, “T’anks to Mr. Bush!” In an interview, Pearcy said he doubted Lockyer would put the painting in his home but said, “He’s been pretty firm about his convictions that he doesn’t like censorship, and I think he is going to stick to his guns on that.”

But Republican Sundheim said the display -- the subject of a protest and extended shouting match between liberal and conservative activists outside the Justice Department building last week -- shows Lockyer’s “inability to show good judgment. What if it had been a Koran in the toilet? What if it had been an unfavorable depiction of gay rights?... I don’t think you would see that in the lobby.”

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But although Lockyer said he indeed would not hang the painting in his home, he denounced “Soviet-style” pressure to remove the work: “I absolutely will not censor some artist’s work. Art often is controversial, not just some pretty picture.”

The current criticism of Lockyer began after his office wrote a title and summary for the governor’s planned overhaul of the public pension system. The document emphasized that the initiative would end death and disability benefits for police and firefighters, a politically explosive argument that led to a landslide of recrimination against the governor.

Last April, Lockyer told a state Democratic convention that his actions on the pension initiative “significantly contributed to the activities, the activism of nurses, teachers and others” who went on the warpath earlier this year, causing the governor to delay the initiative until next year.

In another incident, Lockyer’s office wrote a summary of Schwarzenegger’s government spending initiative, Proposition 76, that emphasized its most controversial aspect: budget cuts to schools.

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What the governor chose to describe as the “Live Within Our Means Act” received a Lockyer title that sounded more ominous: “School Funding. State Spending.” The summary noted that the measure called for a “suspension of minimum funding” for schools.

After receiving complaints from Steve Merksamer, a longtime Republican elections attorney, Lockyer’s office changed the title of the initiative and the summary wording was softened. The title now mentions state spending first and school spending second, and it tells voters that surplus revenues would go toward tax cuts, the state budget reserves or construction projects.

Last week, in another incident that upset conservative activists, Lockyer released a title and summary for one of two planned constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriages -- by highlighting that it would end politically popular domestic partnership laws as well.

Supporters were outraged and threatened to file a lawsuit against Lockyer. For one, they said, the initiative would not prohibit domestic partners from hospital visits. And they objected to the focus on domestic partnerships when the “whole issue is the protection of marriage.”

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“True to his liberal bias, but untrue to his constitutional duty, Bill Lockyer has dumped on us an inaccurate and prejudicial paragraph that is anything but impartial and fair as the law requires,” said Randy Thomasson, an organizer of the initiative.

And in what could be a fatal clerical error, Proposition 77 supporters sent the wrong version of their redistricting initiative to the printers before it was circulated on the street. Lockyer’s office argued that voters were misled, and he sued. A judge ordered the initiative off the ballot less than two weeks ago; the issue is under appeal.

Siggins, the governor’s chief attorney, said Lockyer took the harshest option: “I was surprised when they took a position that neither one should be on the ballot.”

Lockyer said that once an initiative has been approved by his office, the door should not be opened for it to be changed in any way when it is presented to the voters. So he went for the death penalty.

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“Close is not good enough,” Lockyer said.


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