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Essential Politics: California’s next attorney general could sharply oppose executions

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For more than a generation, most of the Democrats who served as attorney general of California wrestled with their personal opposition to the death penalty, its existence in the law and its popularity among voters.

They often followed the example of John Van de Kamp, whose eight years as attorney general before a failed 1990 gubernatorial campaign perfected a balancing act carried on by successors including Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris and current Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.

Van de Kamp, in the words of former Times political writer John Balzar, “says he opposes the death penalty but will move expeditiously to carry out executions — because that is the law.”

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Whoever becomes the 34th attorney general of California — with the assumption that a new top cop will be announced soon, given that Becerra has been nominated to a spot in President Biden’s cabinet — could challenge a political maxim that’s lasted for 30 years.

An anti-death-penalty A.G.?

While Gov. Gavin Newsom has been tight-lipped about whom he’d appoint to fill Becerra’s term if the attorney general is confirmed as Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services, one thing seems clear: He’s likely to find a kindred soul in opposition to the death penalty.

As Patrick McGreevy and Phil Willon report, two years after Newsom imposed a moratorium on California executions, the prosecutors and elected officials considered to be in contention include some of the state’s most vocal opponents to capital punishment.

“I would hope that we would have an attorney general that’s seeking to move us toward abolition of the death penalty,” said Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of Prosecutors Alliance of California.

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Two local prosecutors often mentioned as strong candidates for the job, Santa Clara County’s Jeff Rosen and Contra Costa County’s Diana Becton, are part of a group of liberal district attorneys who are challenging the death penalty. Two other talked-about Democrats, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and state Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), have attempted to persuade California voters to repeal the death penalty. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), whom some Democrats would like to see become attorney general, also opposes the death penalty.

Newsom’s executive action against pending executions is supported by Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of Equality California, a statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization and also mentioned by some observers as a contender for the post. So does Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who’s made headlines recently as a candidate, though he supported the death penalty earlier in his political career.

Several of these Democrats could prove to be an activist attorney general on the issue, a far cry from the careful path of Van de Kamp, whose opposition to the death penalty was criticized by Dianne Feinstein, who won the 1990 Democratic primary for governor over the attorney general — losing the general election to Gov. Pete Wilson before being elected to the Senate in 1992.

“I think I am more mainstream than has been the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” Feinstein said at the time. “I think I’m a lot tougher on crime.”

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Newsom’s new campaign and that ‘SNL’ sketch

Newsom faces perhaps the most challenging month of his political career, with a serious effort to force him to stand for a recall election poised to submit hundreds of thousands of additional voter signatures by March 17. (As we discussed last week, the final word on whether the pro-recall groups are successful may not be delivered until late April.)

As the political pressure grows, so has the governor’s focus on reopening more California school campuses. The path forward has included a lot of haggling with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature and some powerful public employee unions.

Meanwhile, Newsom found himself parodied on national television over the weekend. The opening sketch on “Saturday Night Live” featured a sendup of three governors as game show judges deciding when contestants would be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

In the late-night comedy show’s opening sketch, Dr. Anthony Fauci, played by Kate McKinnon, introduced Newsom’s character as being “hated by every single person in California except for those 10 people he had dinner with in Napa that one time.”

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When asked how things were going in California, Newsom, played by Alex Moffat, responded: “Teeth, white. Body, tight. COVID, pretty bad.”

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Trump: ‘Get rid of them all’

If time really does heal all wounds, former President Donald Trump is going to need a lot more of it.

On Sunday, he broke more than five weeks of silence in a 90-minute speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. Here’s how Eli Stokols and Laura King described the event:

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“More than anything, the speech confirmed that Trump’s post-presidential project will be focused on something other than philanthropy or a library: revenge.”

National lightning round

— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged for the first time Sunday that some of his behavior with women had been “misinterpreted as unwanted flirtation” and said he would cooperate with a sexual harassment investigation led by the state’s attorney general.

— A U.S. airstrike against a Syrian camp used by Iranian-backed militants accused of attacking American bases was a message from Biden, Pentagon officials said. What meaning Tehran took from the attack remains unclear.

— A Texas hospital said a 21-year-old’s hands may need to be amputated after he was found unconscious in the historic winter storm. Border Patrol agents told him he’d be sent back to Guatemala when he was discharged.

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Today’s essential California politics

— Blue Shield of California sought an “expansive” amount of medical data from the University of California health system in exchange for vaccine doses under the state’s revamped allocation plan that awards extensive powers to the insurance giant, a move that prompted objections from UC and alarm from privacy advocates.

— Victims rights advocates on Saturday kicked off their recall campaign against newly elected Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who has vowed sweeping criminal justice reforms to the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office.

— The U.S. Supreme Court told Santa Clara County on Friday that it can’t enforce a ban on indoor religious worship services put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

— A law that bars suspects under 16 years old from being tried for crimes as adults meets constitutional muster and may be enforced, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided Thursday.

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— As the pandemic has ravaged California prisons, some families say officials have failed to inform them when their loved ones have been hospitalized with the virus — receiving a call only when it might already be too late to say their goodbyes.

— California officials have agreed to pay the balance on a $35-million contract for voter outreach due last fall, after months of wrangling over the payment details and Republican criticism of the company that did the work for its close ties to President Biden.

— Shortly before Thanksgiving, Riverside County’s registrar of voters received a post-election surprise: The local district attorney had custody of 91 ballots for weeks, and their review wouldn’t wrap up before certification of the Nov. 3 results. Almost four months later, the ballots remain with the D.A.'s investigators.

— To some in Huntington Beach, Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz is a local version of former President Trump, a populist who speaks through social media, shares right-wing conspiracy theories and has garnered a legion of fiercely loyal fans.

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